By Roger Reeves, PhD

&

At first, I thought to trace an aesthetic through-line in Cyrus Cassells’ poems, from The Mud Actor, his first book of poems, a National Poetry Series winner published in 1981, to More Than Watchmen at Daybreak (2020), his most recent collection, a sequential poem broken up into twelve sections which was written while in silence / silent retreat at the Benedictine Brother at the Christ in the Desert monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I thought I might trace Cassells’ shifting use of nouns and verbs or his deployment and performance of queerness or Blackness since his writing life and books span a vast historical period that have seen seismic shifts in the way that Black folks and queer folks have been treated and incorporated into the mythology and narrative of America. The Mud Actor appears at the beginning of the Reagan years, in a post- Jim Crow America, that will see the rise of the HIV / AIDS epidemic in queer communities that the Reagan administration will belligerently, nonchalantly address. Cassells writes his latest book, More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, at the height of a neo-fascist turn in right-wing, mainstream American politics—this fascistic turn ushered in by the Trump administration’s xenophobia, which Cassells deftly alludes to in the first poem of More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, “Winter Abbey with Venus Rising,” when the speaker locates himself “Far from the deriding republic” and ‘mint-new Herod decrees’ (14). I thought to trace or overlay palimpsest-like these concerns, conflicts, and histories overtop Cassells’ work to see how he either explicitly or implicitly contends with the shifting nation and his place or the place of the poem in it. Or, more so to see how these moments of contestation, rupture, and crises shaped the poetics. But, you know what they say about best-laid plans. And, I, somewhat, sabotaged myself by reading the poems in reverse chronological order, beginning with most recent work and moving backwards—starting with More Than Watchmen at Daybreak moving to The Gospel According to Wild Indigo (2018) and so on. However, whenever I moved on to the next books—The Crossed-Out Swastika (2012), Beautiful Signor (1997)—I couldn’t shake a bit of Latin that appeared in the second poem of the sequence of More Than Watchman at Daybreak, “Accepting the Peace of Saint Francis Hermitage.” The poem begins with a command to the listener (reader) which also might serve as an admonishment to the speaker as well: “Listen, out of love and goodwill,…” (15). And you do, you listen, but what’s surprising is that after learning of the speaker’s small room he’s been gifted, a Latin phrase flutters down almost like the spirit of God descending like a gauze from the ceiling above: “….Benedictus qui venit / In nomine domini,…” (15). Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord, I believe, is the translation. Please forgive my Latin or lack thereof. The phrase is a canticle from the New Testament of the Bible—Luke, Chapter 1, verse 68. But more than a hymn or chant from a Benedictine worship song, it is also a prevailing poetics or aesthetic concern of Cassells’ poems. But I would extend that snatch of Latin to say: Benedictus qui venit nominee domini…and the Body.

Cassells comes to the poem to not only write in the name of the Lord, in the name of the celestial, in the name of the divine at “the cusp of inchoate vermillion,” at “the sacramental banks with pallid embroideries of ice,” but also, as the two aforementioned quotes gesture towards, Cassells comes to write devotionally with impeccable precision of the body, the body “far from the deriding republic” and the body mocked by the same republic for ‘resembling a ‘red-boned’ angel in a hammock, one who finds himself falling in love with another boy with ‘tea-brown fingers’ (4). These devotional poems, which are always in proximity and conversation with “Herod’s decrees,” historicize and reframe a vast array of abuses—from national abuses enacted by governments and political regimes to the ongoing struggle against homophobia and queer antagonism in Black communities—through an attention to what is circumscribing or surrounding them—the stars, the sun, the beauty, the “deep-down plenty” in “the midst of bondage” (16). Cassells’ poems remind me of that moment in Cornelius Eady poem “Gratitude” where the speaker proclaims “I am brick in a house / that is being built / around your house”—the “your house” being the master’s, the nation’s, the oppressor’s house (143). Cassells is not only a brick in a house, but he, himself, is building a house to surround and neutralize various disasters and catastrophes as if to say beauty exists here, too. You cannot take this from me, from us, you old “conniving Caesars of Cotton” and “Greed-Swayed Kings of Sugar.” Cassells subverts, pierces, and disrupts that which might annihilate life through a devotion to that which faces extermination, liquidation—those who are historically and continually remanded to the liminal position of eradication. You and me.

Cassells expresses this poetics, this devotion in the Black-est of ways—the hyphen. Or, maybe I should make that assertion differently, with a little less essentialism. Revision: I’ve come to trace Cassells’ devotion to life in the middle of ongoing catastrophe through the hyphen and hyphenated phrases like “star-scouting / soul-of-a-nighthawk leap—….,” what Cassells calls “the bull’s eye of the beguiling / compound words of Gullah” (11, 25). In “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Zora Neale Hurston calls these sorts of constructions double-descriptors, action-words that dramatize Black life through metaphoricity, performance, “the will to adorn” this drab English language that was thrust upon Black folks because of our captivity. In Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play, Jennifer Devere Brody advances Hurston’s claims about the funkiness of the hyphen by interrogating American grammarians and their sacrosanct grammar manuals with their call for unification of words—a sort of treatise against the hyphen—as an extension of U.S. hegemony and liberal forms of consolidating power, politics, patriotism, and American nationalist ideology. Hyphens, in their visibility, highlight an incommensurability, an unresolved in-between-ness that performs the impossible while yet not healing or correcting the impossibility.

Cassells’ use of the hyphenated adjectives / double-descriptors, particularly in the title poem to The Gospel According to Wild Indigo and More Than Watchman at Daybreak, dramatize several impossibilities / incommensurables at once—the incommensurability of English to account for African Diasporic (Gullah) culture ways, bodies, sensuality, and life; the impossibility of queerness to reside in parochial, Protestant houses. While this might be considered ‘a will to adorn’ (to call back to Hurston), I think we must expand what we think of adornment. It is not merely ornamentation—superfluous and unneeded. Extra. Rather, the will to adorn is the will to critique, an improvising that opens up possibilities inside of a standard, an orthodoxy, a cage. Cassells’ use of double-descriptors opens up the possibility of reaching for a known thing, something like a Black life, behind and beyond the captor’s language. For instance, in “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo,” Cassells begins with a meditation (an ode that is also an interrogation) of the Gullah word for daybreak, dawn, the new sun—dayclean, which itself we can understand as a type of double descriptor, action-word even without a hyphen. With its connotations of awakening in a new day after some conflict or contestation, clear of some dirt from the day before, the word dayclean acts as a presiding sentiment, an ontological space of fugitivity, a moment of possibility and renewal in the ongoing disaster of anti-Blackness and homophobia. Dayclean, its always-arriving, acts as a bulwark against annihilation. However, its multiplicity, its standing-in-for-so-many-things, makes the term quite slippery. And makes meditating upon dayclean, writing lyrically about it, even more difficult. This difficulty pushes Cassells to dramatize the unsayable nature of the word:

Dayclean’s the Gullah word
for the gala sun, the looked-for

melon, meticulous,
up-and-coming,….(3)

It’s as if Cassells wants more out of the English, wants English to be able to accurately state multiples states of being at the same time. Cassells wants both a past (as evinced in the term “looked-for”) and present and future (as evinced in the term “up-and-coming”). He wants a state of being / a tense that exists an ongoing-ness.  A state of being that can express not-yet-arrived-but-known, which is the voicing of the incommensurable. However, this state, this tense does not exist so Cassells dramatically and poetically enacts it through the winding sentence over the time and space of two couplets and the hyphenated adjectives.

These hyphenated adjectives do not make one such appearance in the first section of the poem and then fall away. Instead, they are the engine that drives the poem. In section II of “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo,” these double descriptors / hyphenated adjectives appear on every other line of the first three stanzas—“glove-yellow” to describe the morning, “crow-carried” to describe mussels, “priest-gentle” to describe the pines. The phrases act performatively. Here I mean the term performatively in the J.L. Austin sense of the term—they make something happen through their vocalizing. Something like movement, action. It’s as if Cassells calls the morning, the mussels, the pines into being, into a present or ongoing-ness. These phrases provide not only an impeccable precision to the visual and emotional register to Cassells’ poems, but they also act as a blessing—a benediction—in the form of praise. “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo” praises the margins and the marginal of (Black) life—the Gullah people of the North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia sea islands, the Mount Pleasant aunties, “okra-cooking grannies,” “shredded barbecue / in a Winn-Dixie plastic bucket,” “Marquetta’s stone-ground grits,” Augustus, the speaker’s boyhood crush (11-13). Cassells’ speaker even loves Augustus’ ‘gumption…to share // news of [their] pistol-hot love with [his] pew-strict, / disowning father….” (13). Cassells bring his mouth and ear to that which is castigated for its transgressions and transgressiveness, for its impossibility and incommensurability, and praises its difference—queer love, queer language.

This playing in the non-normativity of language and love simultaneously, through the use of the hyphen resists the unifying narrative of nationalism, resists a monolithic construction of Blackness. Locating American Blackness in the Gullah, a group of Black folks on the territorial margins of the United States, and in queer love in youth (youth being another position of political marginality), Cassells makes a poetic statement about the complicated-ness of nation, belonging, and community; he locates nation and Blackness not in its unities but in its moments of contestation and difference, in its ruptures—at the hyphen. There, Blackness becomes itself—its many varied and multiple selves, at its margins—dayclean. Divine.

It’s irony for sure, but it’s the divine irony of a poet who understands that it is being devoted to difference—to the banal and the celestial—that brings about the divine. In other words, Cassells’ attention to that which we might call God and that which we might call the flesh, the body, is a type of divinity, one that understands the secular, the corporal, the sensual, the sexual, the political as connected to that which historically and theologically we have thought as beyond the body, pure of its stink and wants. And Cassells performs this praising, this attention, this devotion through the difficulty of the incommensurable. Through impossible. And provides for us, the reader, a path through the shouting.

 

Works Cited

Austin, J.L. How to do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.

Brody, Jennifer DeVere. Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play. Durham: Duke UP, 2008.

Cassells, Cyrus. The Mud Actor. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1982.

Beautiful Signor. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1997.

–. The Crossed-Out Swastika. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2012.

–. The Gospel According to Wild Indigo. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 2018.

–. More Than Watchman at Daybreak. LaFayette, New York: Nine Mile Books, 2020.

Eady, Cornelius. Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” http://www.ypsilonediteur.com/images/documents/Zora_Charateristics.pdf.

 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


Roger Reeves by Beowulf Sheehan
© Beowulf Sheehan

 

Roger Reeves first book of poems, King Me, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2013. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Nation, Poetry, among others. He’s won awards and fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts, The Whiting Foundation, and Princeton University. This fall and spring, he will be fellow at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. His next book of poems, Best Barbarian, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton in February / March of 2022.

(more…)

By Jameela Dallis, PhD

“Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little
pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
— Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to be Colored Me”

“we are all the poems that will not be quiet / we are all the poems waiting to sharpen our oyster knives”—
—Jaki Shelton Green, “No Poetry”

&

Jaki Shelton Green sharpens her oyster knife, sharpens her oyster knife, sharpens her oyster knife. These words are litany, invocation, invitation, and view into the poetic realm of Jaki Shelton Green—a poet who believes poems should be physical and immersive and that “writing is about listening.” She is a poet for whom “joy is resistance” and writing is “full of light.”[1] And it’s within such light that we form, as Audre Lorde says, “ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized” (24). Shelton Green’s poems hold, reflect, remember, and project experiences across a range of identities, ways of being, and possibilities of being.[2] Shelton Green is North Carolina’s ninth Poet Laureate—the third woman and first African American to have been appointed to the role—and she is one of my dearest friends.

March 2018, I knew she was someone I should know. In fact, a mutual friend said so. Our first meeting, following a Natasha Trethewey lecture at the Nasher Museum of Art, was brief. I was instantly enamored with Shelton Green’s style—her signature vermillion round glasses (à la Iris Apfel), her bespoke jewelry, her full head of big curls. She was approachable, asked me about myself, and mentioned a few presses to have on my radar. Later that year, fresh with the grief of a lover’s passing, and the uneasy elation of a new Visiting Assistant Professor position, I received my first assignment for a regional independent newspaper, Indy Week. Editor Brian Howe was familiar with my scholarly background and trusted me to interview Shelton Green in her new role as North Carolina’s ninth Poet Laureate. I wasn’t very familiar with Shelton Green’s work, but I googled everything I could and read as many excerpts, interviews, and poems that I could find online. Shelton Green and I met on a hot Sunday morning in September. What was meant to be an hour-long interview stretched for at least two. She graciously answered my questions. I took copious notes. We shared insights off the record and become fast friends. She invited me to her home for dinner a week later.

This essay is part love letter, part introduction to and meditation on Shelton Green’s poetry and vision. Here, I’ll spend time with selected poems from the span of Shelton Green’s career. Many of her early poems explore the richness and complexity of love in its myriad forms. But, even so, her earlier collections remind us that “history has never left us” and her later poems reveal a matured romantic love and the palpable, inscrutable grief of losing one’s child. As a documentary poet, Shelton Green’s poetry bears witness to individual, familial, and communal histories and shows us her art—her ability to “create a language for what she wants to hold without sending people running.”[3] Yet, Shelton Green uses her figurative oyster knife to agitate and open us to the beauty of reading, listening to, and being moved to act by the narratives, the images, the feelings, and the people we encounter in her poems. For poetry, as Audre Lorde says, “forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action” (25).

Dead on Arrival and conjure blues

From her debut, Shelton Green has moved freely from the personal to the historical and maintains a sense of intimacy and agency throughout. In the preface to the first edition of Dead on Arrival (1977), poet and reviewer Lance Jeffers writes, “The winged and delicate imagery of Jaki Shelton . . . may be a harbinger of poetic greatness. . . . Should this idiosyncratic development continue, she will move, I believe, into a circle of greatness” (vii). The book sold out and a second edition with new poems sold out again in 1983. The collection holds poems of understated sensuality as in “shadow,” which begins with “those white shoulders have never / locked / around / black thighs” (1-4). While “and in my old days—“ alludes to the last king of Dahomey opening with “agoliagbo! / agoliagbo!” and the speaker warns, “do not try to / renew me / I am fluid,” asserting her freedom and, perhaps, slipping from the grasp of French colonists (3-5).[4] 

The poem, “the moon is a rapist,” is bold for its time and operates on several levels as it’s hard to ignore that Roe v. Wade was decided only four years before the arrival of Dead on Arrival. The poem’s speaker asks the moon, “why do you kneel there peeing in my window / you kneeling there upon my earth / impregnating the night crawlers with glow,” and Shelton Green’s ability to anthropomorphize the celestial body into a night creeper, an exhibitionist Peeping Tom in three lines is simply astounding (1-3). The moon’s “soft yellowness penetrates” the speaker’s walls and the speaker says,

                        you entered as you were
                        yellow streams of pee
                        leaving traces upon the bed
                        rapist you are
                        beating your rays into my buttocks (6-10)

The violence of the “soft rapist” moon is the caress of its glow, its yellow urine-colored light that is only a reflection of the sun that “knocks loudly upon [the speaker’s] door” (14, 15). We see the female speaker, nude in her bed, bathed in violent light that not only impregnates the night crawlers but her as well. These “moon babies i shall abort / moon babies come out of my birth pouch” she says (12). Though we know people with uteruses have been aborting fetuses for millennia, the landmark decision provided unprecedented agency and access to safe abortions. Though the moon is a rapist, the speaker isn’t bound to birth its children.

In conjure blues (1996), Shelton Green writes several poems for her children, paints intimate moments between lovers, and conjures people living through historical events both tragic and illuminating—the essence of the Blues. Read these poems aloud. Feel their rhythm. They are meant to be experienced. One poem, “insult,” brings Carrie Mae Weems’s iconic 1990 Kitchen Table Series to mind with a woman sitting “with elbows at attention” waiting on breakfast (12). The poem begins, “bacon is burning again / overdue notices form a multicolored border / around the dresser mirror” (1-3). The speaker admires her woodworker lover’s “rich redbrown” back (5) and then “bacon is smoking the kitchen / why does he not cook it in the oven” (8-9). With those lines, we see the smoky kitchen—the bacon is doing the action—and the speaker’s question carries with it the closeness of a well-lived-in romance. We imagine the repeated suggestion that he cook the bacon in the oven for this very reason. There’s a relatability and maybe we think of someone in our lives who never takes our advice and yet we love them madly anyway. In my head, I hear Nina Simone’s version of “Suzanne” as the woman sucks on “mandarin orange slices” (13) and the final lines of the poem feel like a nod to and revision of “the moon is a rapist”:

                        it is a yellow bedroom
                        the egg yolk is running
                        splashes on this thigh
                        she wants to start there
                        licking the spill from his
                        hardness
                        only he’d push her aside and never understand
                        that she doesn’t want to fuck
                        just enjoy breakfast (19-27)

Here the yellow is the color of the bedroom and yolk The woman is the agent of desire, but her desire isn’t for sex, but rather for the sensual experience of the viscous yolk. The “insult” is both experience and implied. There’s the implied insult of cooking advice ignored and the implied insult of being denied (undesired) intercourse. That Shelton Green paints such a scene in less than 30 lines is a testament to her poetic brilliance.

Rememory and Remembering
In several poetry collections, Shelton Green works with the concept of rememory and takes on the task of remembering historical events, putting flesh back on the bones of lost peoples, people who’ve been silenced, and people whose lives have been devalued. Toni Morrison describes rememory as “recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past” (324). One such poem in conjure blues is “tribute to the men and women who perished in the Imperial Chicken Plant fire in Hamlet, North Carolina.” The September 3, 1991 fire injured 55 and killed 25 workers trapped behind locked fire doors. Many believed racism and poor oversight contributed to the high death toll because during the processing plant’s 11 years of operation, there had never been a safety inspection. The plant never reopened.[5] The poem conjures both the Blues and those killed in the fire:

                        there is still a sadness stuck in my mouth
                        that makes me wanna suck
                        on something that i have not tasted
                        for so long
                        what does it mean to not be able to remember
                        your mama’s breast
                        bronze nipples, rising, falling,
                        but the blues remember
                        so without being able to explain
                        i feel this song surging inside of me
                        grinning, shouting
                        i feel this song my every question,
                        my why for, my how come,
                       my what did i do to be so black and blue (1-14)

The poem moves from the present moment—that moment the speaker longs to remember their mother’s breast, a return to innocence that also acknowledges their untimely death due to racist, classist, and anti-worker practices. Shelton Green’s poem begins and ends with the same image of the mother’s bronze nipple and moves readers and listeners through a dirge that remembers the victims of this preventable tragedy.

In Feeding the Light (2014) “an eclipse of skin” is an ekphrastic poem remembering a lynching.[6] The poem tells the larger story of an enslaved man, William, whose owner accuses William of touching his wife’s apron. The poem’s entire sixth stanza is a runaway slave reward advertisement. With phrases such as “He is a / shiny black, lean built with large limbs, long fingers, he is hung / like a race horse” and “He has usually small feet for a nigga and / missing the toe next to this great toe on his left foot,” we are reminded of the dehumanization enslaved people endured and the paradox of being deemed both white men’s property and a sexual threat to white women (22-25). William is hanged for the offense. In the poem’s seventh stanza, a new speaker says, “masa hung my william” (28) and continues:

                        had him hung from the chinaberry tree
                        same tree my william plant for masa
                        when william was just a child
                        masa make me and my baby liza watch
                        from the kitchen
                        liza my child and masa child too (25-34)

Shelton Green captures the cruel hypocrisy of a slaveowner who rapes and impregnates an enslaved woman and lynches an enslaved man who we learn in stanza five was coerced by the slaveowner’s wife. The same wife callously complains “bout how william blood gone kill / the grass” (43-44). Yet, this passage recalls the ending of Zora Neale Hurston’s short story, “Sweat,” wherein protagonist Delia Jones waits under a chinaberry tree for her abusive husband Sykes to die from a rattlesnake bite. Here the mention of the tree may suggest that retribution for William’s death is on the horizon.[7]

The poem continues:

                        masa had him hung
                        passed out cigars and cups of peach brandy 
                        made me suck him off in the kitchen
                        in front of aunt sue
                        making apple fritters (45-49)

The rapist slaveowner’s cruelty is endless reminding readers and listeners that in a society where people own other people, there is no room for sexual agency or consent but, alas, there is sometimes space for retribution. In the ninth stanza, Aunt Sue speaks to the apples, sugar, and fire—she conjures—and nature “remember[s] in all the languages / of storm” (56-58). By the eleventh stanza, the sky is black: “black like masa blood up yonder / black like missus scalp / rolling off the bed” (60-62).

In “an eclipse of skin,” Shelton Green remembers the lynched man by empowering the Black women who loved and survived him. When Aunt Sue speaks to the ingredients, she invokes the power of conjure—the power to speak a desired outcome into being. The women transmute their pain, their mistreatment, the violence done to their bodies into speech, into memory, into magic. Ultimately, the power of Black women’s voices, our imaginations, our dreams, and our poems “give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare” (Lorde 27).

Shelton Green’s most recent poetry collection, i want to undie you (2017), is a lament, a space to hold the inscrutable sorrow for her daughter, Imani Muya Shelton Green, who died in June 2009. The first five lines of the title poem, “i want to undie you,” are full of both searching and deep knowing:

                       i have come to this new place whose trees have no medicine
                       barren ground that has never tasted a thimble of blood
                       where birds fly backwards and sky is afraid of falling
                       it is here that i say goodbye to my woman-child who is remembering her
                       true
                       name and searching for the river where her story was born (1-5)

Poetry becomes a space where Shelton Green can reconnect with her daughter while connecting us with a most private form of grieving. Shelton Green’s language gestures toward what can’t be fully comprehended but has still been experienced. It is this paradox of feeling that lends this collection its heartbreaking beauty.

In “i want you to un-die, come back said the mother,” the speaker lists all the ways she wants her daughter to undie—from “i want the dust of you unscattered” and “i want the grief of you un-grieved” to “i want the verb or you un-verbed” and “un-diagnose the diagnosis of you” (1, 3-4, 8, 12). It is hard to find the language to describe this poem. It is at once a poem of negation and desire, of remembering and remembering. In the final poem of this collection, “now,” the speaker says “i write books. store grief upside down on the top pantry shelf where seldom / used wedding gifts rest beside oversized serving platters the antique tea service / and those tacky fake porcelain teacups i can’t bear to toss” (1-3). The grief here is palpable, but it is also shelveable. Yet, it remains. Grief inhabits an interstitial space resting between the treasured and what we hold on to because we feel we must. Grief is like that. It’s the evidence that we loved someone—that we still remember and remember someone through poetry, conversations, and dreams.

In conversation with oyster knives

Here I return to the beginning and bring together Hurston and Shelton Green once more. The Hurston epigraph, from her renowned 1928 essay, “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” embodies Hurston’s unconventional and anachronistic approach to race and identity—in the sense that she refused to be confined by her contemporaries. Hurston’s full passage is worth reproducing here:

But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (153)

Hurston refuses to embrace a defeatist point of view or be easily categorized. She sees the world as full of potential and is bent on experiencing as much of it as possible. Arguably, Shelton Green inherited a similar spirit from her grandmother who she describes as “a wild woman” who “was always present in a very large way” and was the “first horticulturist” Shelton Green had known (Shockley 121). Her grandmother both “loved living things” and “the texture of nice things” and could be “very feminine” and “girly” (121-22). This juxtaposition, this “openness” taught Shelton Green “not to fear things that are different” and to be a “risk-taker” and, she says, “To stand outside of who you are. To widen your lens of how you view your world and how you invite other people’s perspectives into that world” (122).

“No Poetry,” on The River Speaks of Thirst is one space where I find Shelton Green and Hurston in conversation and where I’ll end this essay.[8] Shelton Green’s poem begins:

                       no poetry for these hands
                       no poetry for these trees
                       no poetry for these men
                       no poetry for the time you chase
                       no poetry for the dreams that hold you hostage
                       no poetry for the truth brewing inside crooked hallways, crooked courtrooms, crooked jail houses
                       no poetry for the fog covering the blood
                       no poetry for the noose flapping against the wind’s tongue

The speaker continues declaring “no poetry” for the wrongs Blacks have known past and present and then shifts, and cracks the poem open into something different. The speaker declares:

                      we are all the poems lurking in the shadows
                      we are all the poems that cannot be forced into cages
                      we are all the poems holding up the sky
                      we are all the poems that will no longer sacrifice our seeds to a toxic wind
                      we are all the poems rattling the ghost bones of the Middle Passage
                      we are all the poems pissing on bloodstained flags

The shift is significant. The poem moves from all the spaces either bereft of or unworthy of poetry to a collective chorus of living poems, potentially dangerous poems for those who attempt to cage or silence the speakers. Then:

                      we are all the poems that will not be quiet
                      we are all the poems waiting to sharpen our oyster knives

And finally, “we are all the poems we need to start a revolution.” And that’s what Jaki Shelton Green’s poetry is always reaching toward—a revolution of feeling, of thought, and of we acknowledge and reckon with our history, our ancestry, ourselves, and our futures.


Notes:
In the second epigraph and final section of this essay, I cite lines from Shelton Green’s 2020 poetry album, The River Speaks of Thirst. Note that although the album has been released, not all of the album’s poems have been published. Thus, line breaks are approximate and I have done my best to cite the work faithfully and have consulted with Shelton Green when necessary about language only.

I have capitalized Black when referring to people of African descent. I have not changed the capitalization of black in quoted material.


Works Cited:
Green, Jaki Shelton. “an eclipse of skin.” Feeding the Light, Jacar Press, 2014, pp. 18-21.

—. “and in my old days—.“ Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, p. 27.
—. “insult.” conjure blues, Carolina Wren Press, 1996, pp. 44-45.
—. ”i want to undie you.” i want to undie you, Jacar Press, 2017, no pagination.
—. “i want you to un-die, come back said the mother.” i want to undie you, Jacar Press, 2017, no pagination.
—. “No Poetry.” The River Speaks of Thirst, Soul City Sounds, 2020.
—. “now.” i want to undie you, Jacar Press, 2017, no pagination.
—. “shadow.” Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, p. 47.
—. “the moon is a rapist.” Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, p. 10.
—. “tribute to the men and women who perished in the Imperial Chicken Plant fire in Hamlet, North Carolina.” conjure blues, Carolina Wren Press, 1996, pp. 34-37.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” The World Tomorrow, May 1928, reprinted in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive Paperback, CUNY Feminist Press, 1979, pp. 152-55.
—. “Sweat.” Fire!! 1926, reprinted in The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1914-1945, 9th ed, W. W. Norton, 2017, pp. 517-25.

Jeffers, Lance. Preface to the first edition. Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, vii.

Morrison, Toni. “Rememory.” The Source of Self-Regard. Knoph, 2019, pp. 322-25.

Shockley, Evie. “Lifting Veils: An Interview with Jaki Shelton Green.” Obsidian 10/11 (2009/2010), pp. 121-28.

[1] Green made several remarks about her approach to writing on during a talkbalk I facilitated March 14, 2021 after the second priemere of the theatrical production of The River Speaks of Thirst, directed by Kristi V. Johnson and produced by The Justice Theater Project.  

[2] Here I use “remember” in the style of Toni Morrison’s “rememory as in recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past” (324).

[3] Quotations are from Green’s remarks on March 14, 2021. See endnote 1 above.

[4] Read one version of the last king of Dahomey’s story at Face2Face Africa.

[5] Read more about the Hamlet chicken plant fire on Wikipedia.

[6] Green says the poem “was in a collaborative exhibit called Lullaby Plantation. I offered poetic responses to the images. This poem responds to a photograph of a lynching” in a March 2, 2014 comment published on the website When Women Waken.

[7] Zora Neale Hurston is one of the several influences and beleoved writers Greens mentions in the interview “Lifting Veils: An Interview with Jaki Shelton Green” by Evie Shockley published in Obsidian 10/11 (2009/2010) pp. 121-128.

[8] On The River Speaks of Thirst, “No Poetry” is performed by Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s first Poet Laureate, CJ Suitt—a queer, Black person.

 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


20200608_073040_0

Jameela F. Dallis, PhD is a writer and scholar who has been teaching, leading conversations, and facilitating workshops for more than a decade. A former Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Elon University and UNC-Greensboro, Jameela has worked with several museums and arts organizations such as the North Carolina Museum of Art, Ackland Art Museum, and Nasher Museum of Art. Her poems, interviews, arts journalism, and literary scholarship have appeared in several publications including Honey LiteraryThoughts on the Power of Goodness, Our State, Decoded: A Duke Performances JournalIndy Week, Monsters and Monstrosity from the Fin de Siècle to the Millennium, and Undead Souths: The Gothic and Beyond in Southern Literature and Culture. She holds a Ph.D. in English from UNC-Chapel Hill. Learn more about her work at jameeladallis.com.

(more…)

By Deborah McDowell, PhD

&

I came first to the writing of Brenda Marie Osbey in the 1990s, when I happened upon All Saints (1997) on the crowded shelves of Powell’s, a used bookstore in Chicago. To say that the spine of this slim yet hefty volume lured me, spoke to me, is to summon a cliché, I concede, but this is exactly what happened. Conducting research at the time for a study of the rituals and poetics of grief and mourning in African American literature and culture, I had no idea of the book’s contents, but from the moment I sat down on a dusty stack of cardboard boxes and began to read it, I knew that I had stumbled upon a jewel of a book and a jewel of a poet. I began to search out and devour everything in Osbey’s corpus I could find, going back to the early volumes — Ceremony for Minneconjoux (1983), In These Houses (1988), and Desperate Circumstance, Dangerous Woman (1991) — but in the roughly 25 years since, All Saints, my first encounter with Osbey’s work, remains the book among her many published titles, I recommend to anyone who wants an introduction to Osbey, the thematic scope of her work, and a glimpse into her ever- evolving poetic practice.  I keep multiple copies of All Saints on hand, gifting them to aspiring poets and avid readers. 

“Why All Saints?” some have asked? I answer, without hesitation, “Because it is the book that captures for me the essence of Brenda Marie Osbey, who is simply, unequivocally, one of the most talented writers of her generation.” Some readers of this issue of The Fight & The Fiddle will be well familiar with her work, but for those new to it, I offer this introduction, focused less on Osbey’s poetics and signatures of craft, than on her themes and philosophies as a writer.

Osbey’s body of work straddles many boundaries and spans diverse intellectual and artistic forms at once: narrative poetry, the lyric, historical narrative, and the personal essay. She has written libretti, translated writers from other languages, including most recently, her translations of poems from the French by Leon-Gontran Damas, which appeared in Black Renaissance Noire (Fall 2018). She has also compiled and edited the poetry of Nigerian writer, Gabriel Okara, publishing Gabriel Okara: Collected Poems in 2016. Not only has Osbey expressed her spectrum of interests in various aesthetic forms, she has also embraced digital media, recording her poems on various electronic sites, providing her readers a sonic experience with her exquisite poetry, as can be found in “On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba.”

A native of New Orleans, Osbey has lived most of her life in the Seventh Ward, and this city has served as the wellspring of much of her writing. But while so much of her work draws brilliantly on the “Crescent City,” it does so with the understanding that this Gulf region has “long been a stunningly cross-cultural matrix” (Flores-Silva and Cartwright 174). Osbey captures its Creole culture, textures, and mysteries, melding them into her singular preoccupations as a writer: death and dying, loss and mourning. In her essay, “Writing Home,” Osbey describes death, not just as a central theme, but also a central character of her work. “Not death as Thief in the Night, Grim Reaper, or even Final Repose. But the specific idea of the Dead as part of the continuum of our families and communities” (37), most especially in New Orleans. As she writes in another essay, “I Want to Die in New Orleans,” it is “the only place in this country where people understand the importance of dying well. Where cemeteries are as prominent as office towers. Where the dead get equal time with the living,” where they “walk and talk among the living . . . only now with an authority they never possessed in life” (Lowe 246). I agree with Thadious Davis that, in Osbey’s writings, New Orleans constitutes a “dual city, the city of the living and its embedded double the city of the dead” (239).

Perhaps nowhere in Osbey’s work is this duality more apparent than in All Saints. Flores-Silva and Cartwright do well to remind us that All Saints, like Osbey’s later volume All Souls (2015), comes “from the Gulf’s ritual calendar when days are set aside as puentes (bridges) between secular and sacred life, the living and the dead” (148). Because the latter volume, subtitled The Essential Poems, contains selections from All Saints, I will refer mainly to the poems in that volume here, which might be read as the instantiation of a command the poet issues at the start of its first section: “live among your dead, whom you have every right to love.” The seven poems in this section, notes Thadious Davis, “move between mourning poems for the recently departed, the foreign dead in the Transatlantic African world, and the familial dead in the factories of the American South” (240), but even the poems in later sections of the volume show the stamp of Osbey’s “peculiar fascination with the dead” (25), to borrow the title of one poem.

In “Peculiar Fascination with the Dead,” which begins with the ritual acts of lighting votive candles, building altars to the dead, keeping mourning portraits, and placing “silver coins in the four corners of your rooms” (25), the speaker is literally living among the dead, speaking of them “as though … they might hear / from the adjoining room” (25). Twelve years old when she is introduced to this domestication of death, the speaker observes these ritual obligations to the dead throughout her life:

i carry silver coins
in the pockets of all my clothes
photographs of my dead follow me
to each new residence.
votive candles and st. john’s wort
go near the head of my grocery lists. (33)

The speaker judges her later lovers “by the heft of mourning / below their eyes / picking my way through their sorrows,” even “carr[ying] the grudges of my dead / like bowls of ash” (33).  Strikingly, she refers to the dead, as my dead, and these remembered souls and loved ones take on the character of precious possessions in Osbey’s work.

It is significant that the majority of mourning poems in the first section of All Saints are written for her friends from Black literary circles, particularly those who have lost their kin — fathers, mothers. She is bearing their dead who become her dead. She picks her way through their sorrows, making them her own. In “Another Time and Farther South,” written for literary critic Clyde Taylor upon the death of his mother, she writes,

in another time and farther south
i would give you ashes for your dead
clean white kerchieves of linen or hand-worked silk
spread crushed shell before you
and tell you to kneel there
and weep in dignity
like a man (20).

While mourning for/with her friend at the loss of his mother, referred to as “your dead,” the speaker is also mourning the loss of rituals once observed in the aftermath of death, rituals now relegated to “another time,” in another place, “so much farther south.” In the face of losing, not only the dead, but also our ritual obligations to them, her only recourse is to offer words instead:

these are words and stand for nothing more
but i can say that in another time and so much farther south
i could have led you through the streets in ashes
one of several women bearing you along
to some sainted spirit ground you could believe on —
a man who had lost his mother, still a son.
and we, the cluster of women
could stand aside beneath the palms
 pressing roots of ginger underfoot.
watching you learn the lesson only death would ever teach. (20-21)

For Osbey, death teaches many lessons, including those that concern a culture’s rituals, its enactments of mourning and memorialization. In her essay, “One More Last Chance: Ritual and the Jazz Funeral,” she examines this traditional celebration of the dead, placing it in long historical context. The old custom of the first or official line, which began with the “solemn processional” from the church and the “exquisitely drawn-out dirge” (98) changed markedly in the 1970s, she observes. It was now replaced by “street revelers” (98), who comprise the famed second line and who, dispensing with solemnity, start the procession right from the church, dancing and blasting to the final resting place. Rather than lament the changes wrought mainly by contemporary youth, Osbey embraces them, viewing these transformations as reflecting “the conundrum of custom in New Orleans. The ability not merely to adapt but to improvise is itself inherent in all our notions of tradition and culture. Here, improvisation is the tradition” (99). For Osbey, the jazz funeral is not a museum object, but rather a ritual that has long responded to the dynamics of history, reminding the reader that “the tradition we laud and cling to was pretty much already dead and dying” (98) by the 1970s. In a delightfully surprising turn in the essay, she traces its decline in the broader context of transformations in the mourning rituals of New Orleans, dating back to the institution of slavery.

Ever a student of history in longue duree, Osbey reminds the reader that Kongolese brought as captives to Louisiana, established the tradition of “vent[ing] the soul’s sorrow with the customary weeping and wailing” after which mourners would “accompany the dead to their resting place with much rejoicing” (104). Of course, the profit motives of slavery killed all that, foreshortening the mourning period, along with its attendant rituals. As Osbey notes, the “Frenchmen and Spaniards who ruled Louisiana were hardly apt to defer their own money-changing rituals long enough to allow for the ‘proper’ heathen burial rites of their slaves” (104) in urban New Orleans. But while slavery’s commercial obsessions may have cut short the time the enslaved could mourn their dead, she commands their descendants in the poem, “Peculiar Fascination with the Dead,” not just to “honor their dead/as they ought to be honored” but also to mourn and “marry memory to the dead” (All Saints, 25)

In Osbey’s poem, “House of the Dead Remembering,” the speaker proclaims that “memory is everything” (23) but in “The House in the Street where Memory Lives,” the first poem of the volume, All Souls), this faculty inevitably becomes friable and elusive; “it falls apart” (3). In other words, even memories, visceral, embodied, once stored for the speaker in “the tips of my fingers/the back of my tongue” (3) can die and thus their dying must also be mourned.

In the poems of these companion volumes—All Saints and All Souls—such memories live and die in domestic spaces — houses, bedrooms, parlors, and they connect, appropriately, to personal losses, to “private griefs,” to adapt the title from the poem “Desire and Private Griefs,” (6).  In the structure and motion of some of Osbey poems, however, these private griefs often give way to the poet’s more transcendent meditations on death and loss, on mourning and memory across expanses of time and space. In “Requiem for a Tall Man” (All Souls), for example, the speaker struggles to come to terms with the death of New Orleans writer, Tom Dent.  Appealing to such time-worn adages as “death is a road” we must all travel, the speaker finds a measure of consolation in “tales the old people used to tell” bout “soldiers who came among us for a short time only / bringing peace” (125). The speaker then shifts fluidly, almost imperceptibly, to other, distant temporalities, signaled by references to “dahomey,” “slave ships in the distance,” and to “centuries longer / nearer / than we care ever to have it said.” In the language of the poem, this movement amounts to “splitting memory and time, a movement connecting Dent, son of New Orleans, to a long ancestral past, and to a place where “saints do step in congo-time” (125). That congo-time was once stepped in the famed Congo Square in Tremé of New Orleans’ French Quarter, where a captive people once danced the Congo and other dances from Africa, passing them down to their descendants who kept them alive, along with other African dances and musical beats. “Requiem for a Tall Man,” illustrates the fusion of “private griefs” and collective memory, however vexed the latter term has come to be. Further, the poem captures the ways in which Osbey sees the cultural injunction — indeed the obligation — to honor and remember “our” dead, as a collective responsibility that includes the “many thousands gone” across the centuries, across expanses of space, time, and condition. Their griefs continuous with our own.

A voracious reader with a greedy intellect, Osbey has long had a penchant for libraries, antiquarian bookshops, and maps, ancient and modern. Indeed, the cover and frontispiece of History and Other Poems (2012) are fashioned from a detail of Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 Universalis Cosmographia.

Picture1

In recent years, her work has shown increasing investment in history and quarrels with the archive, perhaps dating from one of her earliest jobs as a researcher in foreign languages at the main branch of the New Orleans public library.  She described that experience in her essay, “Writing Home.”

Five days a week and sometimes six, I read through countless books, periodicals, and published and unpublished theses and dissertations on the subjects of slavery, resistance and freedom in colonial Louisiana. I sorted and compiled documents and detailed background files on the origins, material culture, family life, and employment of the city’s early African captives. I routinely studied records of births, marriages, and deaths, and translated last wills and testaments of wealthy free blacks who left everything to schools, churches, and benevolent societies. There were catalogues of ships’ arrivals and cargo, inventories of properties including black human property. And there were endless rebellions and uprisings, followed by capture, ritual decapitation or some other slaughter. I followed the creation of armed black militia, conditions under which the enslaved either earned or purchased freedom, the court testimony of the enslaved against their masters, and other peculiarities of urban slavery the way I’d once followed the latest dance moves” (40).

In one way or another, these and other historical details, undoubtedly the fruits of Osbey’s passion for research show up in her writings.  Asked in an October 2013 online interview in Warscapes Magazine, if a poem can be history, Osbey answered with characteristic erudition:

There is a longer tradition of the poet-as-historian than we readily admit. . . Much of the
accepted history of Western antiquity comes to us from Homer . . . Much of what we’ve
come to understand about life in pre-Columbian Americas. Indeed, much if not most of
what we know (or claim to know) about the ancient worlds of Africa, Asia, the Americas
and Europe, we know through poetry. . . This presumed divide between history and poetry
really is a relatively recent one, and one that seems to underscore the recent need to seg-
regate intellectual and creative work into neat and exclusive categories. 

Osbey’s work has never honored such conventional categorizations, never less so than in History and Other Poems. There, Osbey takes a questioning, reflective, critical view of the very category of history, questioning most especially its suppressions and distortions, not least those pertaining to the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  Her volume’s title poem, “History,” that critical impulse is evident in the volume’s titles poem, “History, which takes its epigraph from Robert Hayden’s poem, “The Islands”: “But I am tired today of history / its patina’d clichés / of endless evil.” This long narrative poem explores unflinchingly the violent history of this trade in Black flesh, of European and American colonialism, the effects and reverberations of which can be felt, the book implies, to this very day. Traversing centuries, circling the globe, by land and sea, the poems of this volume bear the stamp of Osbey’s linguistic dexterity, her vernacular range, and her Olympian intellect. The poem provides the reader a history of violence and conquest, of evil and oppression, as well as an extended meditation on history itself, or more precisely our assumptions about it. After the myths, the fables, the abridgments, the approximations, and the outright lies that masquerade in its name, what, then, is History? While the speaker of “History” answers this question in a variety of ways, one pronouncement is clear: “there is no history of this world that is not written in black” (58).

The poem takes the form of a synoptic lesson, albeit a “weary wearied and wearying lesson, “and yet it is to lessons we must go,” the speaker intones, for we have not learned it “well enough” (51). To learn that history requires relinquishing the “chanties about some ocean-blue / because for us / all oceans are forever red” (51). The speaker is clear that, while the “whole of history seems designed to render me sad / disconsolate / broken-hearted / and plain old down” (69), the lessons of slavery’s evils, its “archipelagos of death” must be learned, even if “the real measure of human loss” (51)  never be tallied.

History and Other Poems puts Osbey, the linguist and archivist, on full display, particularly in the appended glossary and notes, which include references to the many terms from African and European languages appearing throughout the volume. In introducing the glossary, Osbey explains that the collection uses “phrases, terminology and historically appropriate names of people, places, and cultural concepts from a variety of languages deployed in the forging of the New World — French, Spanish, Portuguese, reconstituted (New Orleans) Creole — in addition to American/English of the various periods” (73). The glossary is careful to parse their meanings, their uses and misuses.

In the 2013 interview referenced above, Osbey mentions “reject[ing] outright the kind of figurative language that underplays the role of the extreme violence of slavery in the New World project,” and one passage of the title poem, “History,” addresses this obscene history at the unit of the word “slavery.”  

Then bring me the tongue of any who use the word slave as metaphor for servitude

metaphor for addiction
as metaphor for love
metaphor for anything
bring me their tongues
to tack up on the walls of those castles —
o fort and fortress —
by the saddest of the old old seas.

Despite the references in this passage to the walls and castles of slave forts, I am inclined to read this section, which takes the form of a curse (a form that Osbey also favors), as reflecting Osbey’s concerns about the misuses of language in contemporary parlance and popular culture. As she has noted in “The Poem as History” interview in Warscapes, such “quotidian use of metaphor and other figures of speech” functions to “erase and to disappear the lived experience of a people”

Osbey attempts to capture that “lived experience” in History and Other Poems, even knowing how elusive such attempts are in fact. Though Osbey has written a volume of vast chronological sweep, encompassing references from the 15th century to the present, no one knows better than she that the “lesson” offered up in “History” is but a fragment of the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the horror it unleashed upon the world. The title poem, which closes the volume, ends on a curiously teasing note: “for now we may well consider ourselves done/having come to the end of the addenda/ to the preface for this introduction / of our little history / part one” (70). Addenda? Preface? Introduction? History Part One?

In writing a history that is difficult to tell and does not end, Osbey joins other contemporary poets, such as M. NourbeSe Philip, whose work also addresses historical atrocities, only to render them incapable of capture. In her justly celebrated book length poem, Zong! Philip takes up the history of the late eighteenth-century British court case regarding the throwing overboard of 150 “negroe” slaves by the captain of the slave trading ship Zong during its trip from the West Coast of Africa to Jamaica. As Susan Holbrook notes, in this oceanic poem, which reaches across centuries, Philip works to tell the “untellable,” to deliver a “story that can never fully emerge” (https://jacket2.org/article/m-nourbese-philips-unrecoverable-subjects).

In bringing History and Other Poem to a close with the teasing allusions to “addenda,” “preface,” “introduction,” Osbey announces, if only implicitly, that she is far from done with history. Luckily, for her band of faithful readers, among whom I count myself, she has recently turned her attention to the history of Virginia in a volume-in-progress titled “Virginia Suite,” which builds logically on History and Other Poems.

Also reflecting Osbey’s lifelong penchant for the archive, this project focuses on interactions of Native Americans, Europeans and Africans in the earliest years of the Virginia Colony, considering how perceptions and representations of the 1607 settlement at Jamestown have shaped and continue to shape North American history, mythology, education, law and social/cultural engagement. Now well underway, the seedling of this volume was “In Memory of Katherine Foster, Free Negress, Late, of These Parts,” a poem commissioned by the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies, at the University of Virginia, to commemorate the Foster Family/Canada Park Dedication in 2011. The remains of Foster and other free Blacks, who lived on the edges of the University of Virginia’s central grounds, were disinterred when the school began excavating the landscape to prepare for the construction of a new building, which now houses the History Department. While the commemoration represented the institution’s way of remembering and honoring the dead, the poem represents another, one that raises implicit questions about the complexities of institutional commemoration.

The speaker of this poem addresses the reader from the silence of the grave, engaging in her own act of remembering — of her children, a neighbor, Hester, all once alive in “this one small plot — / briefest sanctuary / home and work / laughter and sweet communion / smallest respite against so many martyrs on the way.” For Katherine Foster and those “free blacks” remembered in this poem, the sanctuary of “sweet communion” coexists with the threat of violence.  In its second stanza, the poem turns to the “gentlemen” of the university nervous about the goings-on “southeast to southampton.” This is an obvious, tacit reference to Nat Turner, whose actions generated a massacre of blacks, in the aftermath of his rebellion. In retaliation, “no one asks” who is “slave or free,” but proceeds to “hacking negroes right and left.” In the face of this slaughter, the stanza’s closing question is particularly resonant: “exactly what / after all / is / a free negro?”

The poem implies other, broader questions critical to the workings and makings of history, memory, and memorialization, especially for the present. The speaker observes the care being taken with “every little thing” as the excavation proceeds. These gravediggers of a different kind, now charged with “unearthing and replanting” the remains of Katherine Foster and those with whom she shares the grave, may show a “tenderness now that we are gone- / or so they tell themselves.”

What do those in the present tell themselves about the past? As the poem moves unhurriedly to its conclusion, the speaker asks related questions:

 and now that we are neighbors to that great institution

who ever will tell what only we could tell?
 who knows the cost of what we bought and paid for?
who dares to tell the cost of mr jefferson’s
own sweet dream
and higher calling
for this upper country.

“In Memory of Katherine Foster” takes a quietly critical view of this project of memorialization mounted by a university built and sustained by the labor of the formerly enslaved. Although Katherine Foster was a “free Black,” she, the speaker of the poem, understands that the line dividing slave from free is porous. She understands, moreover, that the act of honoring and remembering the dead and sacralizing their remains necessitates a violent disturbance of the peace and the sanctuary of the grave’s repose. In other words, erecting this memorial to Katherine Foster requires, in the words of the poem, “cutting through bloodied red earth / cutting through this one small plot,” that held the remains of those in this free black community of Canada.

Osbey accepted a second commission from the University of Virginia, one from the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University (PCSU), producing “Fieldwork” to commemorate yet another burial ground at another edge of the university. This cemetery contains the remains of 67 workers once enslaved to the university and situated below the University Cemetery boundary. Much like “In Memory of Katherine Foster,” “Fieldwork” focuses its attention on the finite, intimate details defining the lives and deaths of those now buried, including the causes of their deaths: tetanus, pneumonia, maternal mortality, typhoid, and consumption. Listed in the “ledger and book” as “unknown,” these souls, notes the speaker, were not “unknown” to “those who love and tend them in the end / not by us / not by rust-red earth / soft-brushed by hands that carry and tend” them.

As in “In Memory of Katherine Foster,” this commemoration of these 67 souls amounts, in its way, to a disturbance. Notes the speaker of the poem,

it is worse than wicked to disturb those going to talk well with their own
grave evil to prevent them from keeping
good company with their own dead.

Understanding the archaeological investments in material culture for the sake of knowledge, the speaker notes nevertheless, “it is well to consider / that research design is one language / reverence another.” Osbey’s own preference for reverence shows in the poem’s final stanza, in which those “unknown,” now named — tessa, hannah, billy, strong mike, william, tom, bacchus, violet, liza and baby liza, old limas, and others — now “surveying / beyond what-all remains of this green/embowered wood.” Now “neither slave nor servant,” they commune in repose, together in “these our truest skins … inside this silty red and clayey soil,” casting off “the evils of this place.”           

It is significant that Osbey wrote “In Memory of Katherine Foster” and “Fieldwork” in this moment when the University of Virginia, like other institutions of higher learning in the United States, is supposedly “reckoning with its past.”  Founded and sustained by the uncompensated labor of the enslaved, these universities now openly acknowledge that their foundations and prosperity were tied inextricably to this labor, to the violence and brutality on the bodies that performed it. In subtle ways, these poems invite us to think about the questions Saidya Hartman raises about slavery, collective memory, and the ethical responsibilities of commemoration. Hartman is writing specifically about tourism as a “vehicle of memory” at former slave forts and castles, which she appropriately calls “dungeons,” but her questions are much more broadly applicable, including to present-day acts of commemoration in which the consortium of “Universities Confronting the Legacy of Slavery.” Hartman asks, “How can this encounter with the past fuel emancipatory efforts?  Is it enough that these acts of commemoration rescue the unnamed and unaccounted for from obscurity and oblivion . .  . Is there a necessary relation between remembrance and redress?  Can the creation of a collective memory of past crimes insure the end of injustice” (“Slavery’s Time,” 773)?  These are weighty questions, and they are not lost on Osbey, who must perform the delicate balancing act:  accepting a commission in the interest of a university “confronting slavery,” while granting herself the license to register the complexities—at times, the violence—of that confrontation.

In 1967: On the Semicentenary of the Desegregation of the College of William and Mary,” another poem in “The Virginia Suite,” Osbey brings her poetry of remembrance closer to our times. The College of William and Mary commissioned “1967” to commemorate the year when three African American women — Lynn Briley, Janet Brown Strafer, and Karen Ely — desegregated the college. Although focused on a different time and place, this long narrative poem, comprised of three cantos, takes a panoramic view of history, embedding the moment of the school’s desegregation in the thick, rich context of early Virginia and beyond. Much like “History,” “1967” incorporates fragments from historical documents within the narrative progression of a poem that also seeks to consider the personal costs of historical change. “how-long-how-many-how-much-exactly-is the cost of a slow and peaceful/desegregation?” Here too, as in the other poems discussed here, Osbey does not shy away from considering this question within the trajectory of the long Black freedom struggle, a struggle fraught with violence and a

special strain of terror
reserved for negro girl-children
with their bookstraps and lunchbox
smartly gathered or pleated dresses, and socks folded over just so… .
who walked past white mothers cursing, screaming
spitting nigger nigger like anybody’s business

Despite this history of the utter violence of desegregation captured in “1967,” the poem concludes on this note: 1967 “was a very good year to be alive and blacker even than you knew.” We might be inclined to extract from this line the evidence of progress, but such would simplify Osbey’s project, and blunt the sharp edge of her critique.  She is certainly alert in “1967” to the legacy of the past in the present, as well as to what Dennis Beach has termed, those bodies who are “oppressed by history.” The chronological scope of the poem, as well as that of “History” suggests that there is a kind of memory that “throbs with a pain that is past but never past enough,” thus making history “our neighbor,” and remembrance, a particular kind of ethical obligation (318). Osbey has continued to register that “pain that is never past” in one of her most recent poems planted firmly in the present.

Long reluctant to permit her work to be published in anthologies, Osbey recently relented, contributing “AS YET UNTITLED: A Seasonal Suite” to Martin Espada’s anthology, What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump. This poem is part of another suite-in-progress that Osbey is calling “As Yet Untitled.” That suite is a component of the much larger, “Etudes Project,” which she described in a note to me as a “batch of ‘studies’ in language/rhythm/rhyme/voice/scan, etc.”

 “A Seasonal Suite” explores the wanton loss of black life in the contemporary moment, much owing to the rising tide of white supremacy. In the space in the poem where grief might be, outrage stands instead. The poem sustains this tone from beginning to end. The everyday, relentless slaughter, defining a “season of hate and of violence,” can be “any date year month time” in “regions without borders or bounds.” From college campuses to suburban cul-de-sacs to churches, there is no surcease from this excrescent violence, the victims of which the poem does not name. It seems that there is “no longer interval or spell neither span nor while not stretch” to pause for naming, for mourning these casualties resulting from the “puling entitlement” of white supremacy.

The speaker references these victims only tacitly, but no one who has lived through this “era and epoch” can fail to insert their names: Trayvon Martin, the Charleston Nine, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, to name but a few. These black bodies all blend into each other, much as the poem piles on, with few line breaks and no punctuation, “after-crime scenes:”

suburban cul-de-sacs small city traffic lanes major metropolitan area thoroughfares rural mail routes kindergartens gymnasiums waterfronts campuses driveways churches

Here this non-stop pile of liquefying references accumulates, spilling over, edging each other out. There is no space for pausing, for catching breath.

The poem conjoins this “era and epoch season” to a long history of bloody violence, including that meted out on Black bodies by the KKK, by lynch mobs, whose “mitochondria” has “mutated” to form new mobs, parading out from behind the cloak of sheets. Those with only “blank whiteness to trade on” engage in a latter-day ritual of holding “sheets / frayed through at the center making cross-eyes at the dark world beyond.”

“A Seasonal Suite” invites comparison to “Absent Trees and Rope,” the title Osbey gave her introduction to an issue of Warscapes, which she curated in September 2015. She began that essay by describing the deaths of more than six dozen African Americans from May through October, 1916, “one of the most horrific seasons of racist violence in the United States since the end of slavery.” she went on to say. Historians have long referred to these five months as the Red Summer of Hate, although it was, as Osbey notes, “only one of many peaks in the continuum of white supremacist invective, assault and murder” (http://www.warscapes.com/author/brenda-marie-osbey).

African American poets were not slow to address this violence in their time, including Claude McKay, whose famous sonnet, “If We Must Die,” was one response. In inviting the poets Frank X Walker, E. Ethelbert Miller, Afaa Weaver, Duriel Harris, and Major Jackson to contribute to this special issue, Osbey situates herself — and these poets — within a long line of writers of conscience, who have “historically refused to remain silent in the face of racist violence and abuse.” With this issue, indeed with her whole body of work, Osbey illustrates that famous adage of the late poet Audre Lorde: “Poetry is not a luxury,” which she quotes in “The Poem as History.” As she puts it, “My own practice has always been to think of poetry first, foremost and always as a way of engaging and interacting in and with the world.” Not only does her writing embody this way of thinking, so do the other public offices she has unselfishly performed. As Poet Laureate of Louisiana, Osbey represented the state in numerous national forums and brought to this devastation of Hurricane Katrina, insights that escaped the titular experts, the talking heads, and the opportunists who exploited the tragedy for their own gain. Her own poem, “Litany of our Lady,” performed on the fifth anniversary of Katrina, references and remembers the disaster, while avoiding the temptation, indulged in by so many, to serve up the tropes of a disaster tour. As she writes in a brief essay accompanying an online version of the poem, “New Orleans has survived repeated disasters, tragedies, cataclysms and reverses … Through it all, she remains. And those of us with enough of her in our blood, skin, teeth and bones are resolved also to remain.” The world of writers, scholars, and teachers is fortunate indeed that Brenda Marie Osbey is “resolved to remain” in New Orleans, the wellspring of so much fine work, but she has also shown an equal resolve to remain planted in whatever place engages her with the world and the work of honoring the dead, whom we are obligated to keep alive.

 

Works Cited

Dennis Beach. “History and the Other:  Dussel’s Challenge to Levinas. Philosophy and Social Criticism. 30.3 (2004):  315-330.

Davis, Thadious. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, & Literature. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2014.

Flores-Silva, Dolores, and Keith Cartwright. “Feeding the Gulf Dead: An Ofrenda of Response to Brenda Marie Osbey’s All Saints & All Souls.” The Southern Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4, 2018, pp. 162-177. Project Muse, muse.jhu.edu/article/710408.

Hartman, Saidya. “The Time of Slavery,” South Atlantic Quarterly 101:4 (2002): 757-777.

Holbrook, Susan. “M. NourbeSe Philip’s Irrecoverable Subjects,” Retrieved from

            https://jacket2.org/article/m-nourbese-philips-unrecoverable-subjects

Lowe, John (Ed.). Louisiana Culture from the Colonial Era to Katrina. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2008.

Osbey, Brenda Marie. “Absent Trees and Rope.” Warscapes, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.warscapes.com/tags/african-american

—. All Saints: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1997.

—. All Souls: Essential Poems. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2015.

—. “One More Last Chance: Ritual and the Jazz Funeral.” The Georgia Review, vol. 50, no. 1., 1996, pp. 97-107. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41401226 .

—. “Writing Home.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, 2008, p. 19+. Gale Literature Resource Center.

 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


IMG_8320Deborah E. McDowell is the Alice Griffin Professor of Literary Studies and Director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia.  Her publications include ‘The Changing Same’:  Studies in Fiction by African-American WomenLeaving Pipe Shop:  Memories of Kin, The Punitive Turn:  Race, Inequality, and Mass Incarceration, as well as numerous articles, book chapters, and scholarly editions. Professor McDowell founded the African-American Women Writers Series for Beacon Press and served as its editor from 1985-1993. She also served as a period editor for the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, now in its third edition;  contributing editor to the D. C. Heath Anthology of American Literature, and co-editor with Arnold Rampersad of Slavery and the Literary Imagination.  Her service on various editorial boards has included Publications of the Modern Language Association, American Literature, Genders, and African-American Review, Modern Fiction Studies, and Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. Her awards and honors include fellowships from Radcliffe, the National Research Council Fellowship of the Ford Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center Fellowship.  She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by Purdue University in 2006.

 

 

Editor’s Note: While our usual editorial style uses poets’ last names on second reference, this essay intentionally breaks with that style as a nod to the intimacy the poet has cultivated with audiences and readers.

By Kendra N. Bryant, PhD

I turned myself into myself and was
jesus
men intone my loving name
All praises All praises
I am the one who would save
 —Nikki Giovanni, “Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why)” 

Jesus wept. (John 11:35)

&I find Jesus and Nikki to be quite similar, maybe even one and the same. Admittedly, however, I don’t know either that well. But I think I know enuf about them to make such an assertion. See, I’m thinking if Jesus really is on Mars,[1] then Nikki’s fascination with space is really her fascination with herself, but not in an ego-tripping, self-centered fashion; more like a return to Self. Otherwise, why else in her 1971 essay, “Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet” — which begins with her own Creation story about a possibly bored Earth who was one with the sun before it, like Mercury and Mars, flew away from the sun (with Venus in tow) — did Nikki write she is “a being from almost another planet” (133, 136)? Maybe she is.

Maybe Nikki is from Mars, and when she turned herself into herself and was Jesus, her body was transported to Earth.

Or: Maybe Nikki is so enthralled with space travel because her identical twin, they both born from one fertilized egg split in two, lives on Mars with Jesus. After all, Nikki is a Gemini. Maybe Nikki’s identical twin communicates with Nikki in her dreams, which is how Nikki knows “[w]hen the man in the moon smiles, [t]he men on Mars dance,”[2] unless Mae Jemison told her so[3]. And maybe it was Nikki’s twin who told her to name her son Thomas, the apostle called “twin.” He, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, was willing to die with Jesus as He journeyed back to Judea, where Jews attempted to stone him, to see the deceased Lazarus (John 11:16). Perhaps Jesus wanted to make sure Nikki had her own “ride or die.”

If Nikki’s twin, who lives on Mars with Jesus, is talking to Nikki in her dreams, then that would also explain why Nikki Giovanni is a writer who believes “a Black beautiful, loving world is possible” (“Gemini” 149). After all, Nikki has spent her life propagating “Black love is Black wealth”[4] thru works that lionize Black feeling, Black talk[5] — writin bout how Black folks cook, quilt, pray, sing, sex, dance, protest — how they “remained humane under inhumane conditions.”[6] And still do.  

I’m thinking: Jesus, who I know was a nappy headed Negro, gave Black folks Nikki cause He knew she would rightly manifest Him (and His Black love) here on Earth — not quite like Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream”–“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Jesus manifestation, but like Nikki Giovanni Re: Creation–Black JudgementChasing Utopia manifestation. That’s why John, who was a witness for Jesus, begins his book with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). You get it?

Nikki told us she became a writer because she had no other skills she did as well (“Gemini” 135), and that’s clearly because Jesus made sure her writerly self was here on Earth: to right (or write) the truth. And although Jesus gave Nikki what would feel to most of us an unsurmountable task, I believe she was born for it, for as a little girl she daydreamed about “hold[ing] the whole world up if I so chose,” she says, (138) and then explains with “power comes responsibility,” which Nikki recalls her grandmother taught her, was to her people (138).

Undoubtedly, her people are Black women Nikki describes as “the single group in the West intact … the only group that derives its identity from itself” (144) — which is why, when Nikki turns herself into herself, she is Jesus. Her people are Black women, she says; they are the “for and to”[7]— the ones who will be “quilting a black-eyed pea”[8] when Black America lands on Mars, and Nikki knows this because her twin is already there with Jesus. And together, at midnight, over a glass of red wine, they commune with Nikki, which colors her dreams — although she thinks her dreams are colored by her “morning breakfast routines.”[9]

Either way, it is quite likely since Nikki Giovanni doesn’t have a biological twin (she knows of) and human life forms have yet to be discovered on Mars, that Nikki carries a two-ness. But it ain’t the Du Boisian double consciousness that too many Black folks have accepted. Nikki ain’t been engaged in “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois 9). For she confesses in an “I am” approach:

I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy.

(“Nikki-Rosa,” 53; lines 27-33)

Nikki’s twoness, instead, is like an incomprehensible spirit frolicking in a body that operates in a manner inviting people to receive her words, her message. But Nikki is more than “we are spirits having a human experience.”[10] Because her embodiment surpasses our understanding — at least my own — Nikki is alien. Yet! because she is so hueman, she is also a friend.

While I, like most little Black girls, consumed and regurgitated Nikki’s 1972 “Ego Tripping” poem — and even claimed her sixth stanza re: her “recreation” my favorite — I began musing over Nikki’s Jesus self after reading her latest collection: A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter (William Morrow, 2017). During her lectures at Furious Flower’s 2019 Legacy Seminar, which I attended, Nikki shared she was learning to cry, thus the impetus of the 54 poems and 111 pages that make up her compilation: “I am trying to learn / How to cry,” Nikki writes in her poem, “Baby West” (6; stanza 14 ). “It’s not that my life / Has been a lie / But that I repressed / My tears” (6; stanza 15).

I listened to Nikki talk about how she rarely cried, how she couldn’t cry, but as of late she cries at the drop of a hat, and I thought of Jesus. I thought of the Jesus, who, like Nikki, was at the frontlines of revolutionary wars, if you will. About how they —  witnessing famine, genocide, and capitalism, losing loved ones, and being rejected — still said yes; still gave love; and still offered the gospel as they stood in their is-ness, in that “I am” spirit. And I thought: Of all the shit Jesus witnessed and endured, why did Lazarus’ death make him cry? What made Nikki want to learn to cry?

According to Biblical scripture, after seeing the sadness Lazarus’ friends and his sisters, Mary and Martha, carried, Jesus “groaned in the spirit and was troubled” (John 11:33). And when Jesus looked upon Lazarus’ dead body, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Jesus eventually resurrects Lazarus, which he might’ve done because He wanted to prove to onlookers He is the resurrection and the life, which He proclaims to Martha in verse 25. Or Jesus so loved Lazarus, as the Jews observe in verse 36, that He could not bear Lazarus’ death. So Jesus told Lazarus to get up. I’m no Biblical scholar, but I think any way the wind blows, Jesus’ weeping humanizes Him, while His ability to resurrect Lazarus speaks to an incomprehensible divinity. Moreover, the letting go, as expressed in Jesus’ tears, conjured life.

Jesus basically surrendered to His feelings, and I think Nikki Giovanni is experiencing a similar phenomenon. In her effort to cry, Nikki purposely engages that human expression that personifies her, and I wonder: What divine thing will she bring forth? What or whom will she resurrect?

In A Good Cry, Nikki writes to her family, friends, and Virginia Tech students. She writes about food, nature, and Black lives mattering, while remembering Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Ruby Dee, and Rita Dove. Nikki acknowledges schools, movements, and museums; she imagines Black women singing in Mars, she shakes with Big Maybelle in a Newport nightclub, and she makes clear the difference between school and education. Nikki says she wants to be a fly on the wall (as well as a possum in autumn). She takes her water with sugar and fruit juices, and as a little girl, she loved to dust the bathroom lightbulbs. Clearly, A Good Cry is a myriad of personal experiences and relationships —much like a creative nonfiction memoir that, although points to the author’s life, also points readers to their own lives.

I don’t understand all of the poems in A Good Cry, specifically not “Poseidon Hears His Baby Boy Crying,” and I am fine with not understanding it. I don’t particularly analyze poetry; for poetry shouldn’t be as much analyzed as it should be felt. And so I’ve been feeling my way through A Good Cry wanting to happen upon the Jesus piece — the one specific poem that further supports my notions re: Nikki’s relationship with Jesus, particularly their emotionality. (Because I really do want to connect “Jesus wept” and A Good Cry.)

At first reading, I was almost sure “Space: Our Frontier” was it. I’ve been so amused with Jesus being on Mars with Nikki’s twin sister, this poem felt like the Word. In it, Nikki urges NASA to send Appalachian Hill writing students to Antarctica to observe its climate because Antarctica is “the closest thing we have to Space” (10). Especially because the poem’s first line mentions the Middle Passage — which nods to her 2002 “Quilting the Black Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars)” — and then speaks about endeavoring to Antarctica, “in friendship,” to uncover the life forms that the “quiet side” of the sun warms (9), I initially believed “Space: Our Frontier” was the Jesus piece. I mean, how can one not feel Jesus in Nikki’s expressions, which include lines like: “our dreams [being] the perfect beginning” (11)? But as convincing as “Space: Our Frontier” is, that poem is not it. The it poem signaling Nikki’s Jesus self is “I Married My Mother.”

Almost centering the book, “I Married My Mother” is compiled of 45 lines, the longest being eight words. It is the Jesus piece that signals the resurrection of both Nikki Giovanni and her mother; their relationship is the impetus for Nikki’s other relationships, most of which are shared via Nikki’s lectures, poems, and prose pieces. “I Married My Mother” is Nikki’s declared return to self, or her acceptance of her ultimate self, wherein Nikki finds safety (again) in a “mother-love” [11] made possible through her own communal practices. In other words, just like Jesus’ purpose was made clear in how He communed with the disinherited, Nikki’s purpose is defined through her community relationships.

Understanding the depth of this poem is best done, I think, in consideration of Howard Thurman’s[12] philosophies about one’s purpose, which is thoughtfully explicated in Luther E. Smith’s 1988 “Intimate Mystery: Howard Thurman’s Search for Ultimate Meaning.” Smith’s essay is organized into three sections, and part 1, “Reality’s Narrative,” explains Thurman’s ideas about ultimate reality as it exists in community, God, and love. Although Smith’s entire essay is worth discussing here, I will focus on “Reality’s Narrative,” which does the most to support my notion re: Nikki’s “I Married My Mother” being a Christlike expression.

Part 1 of Smith’s essay includes two sections: “Community and God” and “The Love-ethic.” These sections collectively explain Thurman’s theory that ultimate meaning, in other words, one’s purpose in life, is informed by one’s relationship to one’s community, which results in one’s relationship to God, and concludes with one manifesting that relationship to God by relationshipping with others. To understand “I Married My Mother” in terms of Thurman’s “Search for Ultimate Meaning” requires folks to know a little bit about Nikki’s childhood experiences and the relationship she had with her mother and other beings, sentient and non-sentient. (I suggest reading The Prosaic Soul of Nikki Giovanni (William Morrow, 2003), which includes “Gemini,” “Sacred Cows and Other Edibles,” and “Racism 101”).

Nonetheless, to understand “I Married My Mother,” readers should know this: Nikki Giovanni was born in 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee; however, she spent her elementary and middle school years in Cincinnati, OH, until she entered ninth grade, at which time she moved back to Knoxville where she completed her high school years under her maternal grandparents’ guardianship. Nikki’s father was abusive, and at 15 years old, she no longer wanted to bear witness to her father’s abuse. According to Virginia Fowler’s “Chronology” reprinted in The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1998 (William Morrow, 2003),  Nikki’s grandmother, “who is involved in numerous charitable and political endeavors, becomes an increasing influence on her, teaching her the importance of helping others and fighting injustice” (xxi). Nikki was also influenced by two of her high school teachers, says Fowler (xxi) — all of whom inarguably facilitate Nikki’s affinity for little old ladies.

In between writing and publishing poetry, receiving awards, and participating in lectures, Nikki also became her parents’ caretaker, purchasing a house her abusive father had to live in, thus removing him as head of household and, therefore, as the dominant force of her mother’s abuse. While Nikki’s relationship with her parents (and her sister who was two years her elder) coupled with the relationships she encountered as a Black woman navigating white America’s supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, are common tropes in Nikki’s poetic works, “I Married My Mother” focuses on Nikki’s relationship with her mother, which is actually an interrogation of herself. According to Howard Thurman, says Smith, “At the most fundamental level of physical survival we can see that each form of life depends upon an other-than-self source for nourishment. Existence requires relatedness” [emphasis mine] (85). As such, in “I Married My Mother,” Nikki describes her relationship with her mother through her relationship with crying — and both, mother-love and crying, are sources of nourishment vital to human survival.

Nikki’s poem begins with her claiming crying is a skill she “maybe” will learn; however, she “automatically” wipes tears from her face, thus implying crying, the process of shedding tears, is not a skill — for crying is the eye’s natural response to removing irritants, reducing stress hormones, and fighting pathogenic microbes — but the when of crying is the skill Nikki hopes to learn. In other words, crying as an expression of one’s vulnerability is the skill Nikki says she “maybe” will learn, noting both her mother and sister did learn to cry. They dared to be vulnerable:

I know crying
Is a skill
I automatically wipe
My eyes even though I know
Crying
Is a skill

Maybe I will learn                       
My mother did
When she thought
I was asleep

Following Nikki’s admission (which is her being vulnerable) Nikki invites her sister Gary into her musings. “I think my sister did / Sleep / But sleep is as difficult / To me as crying” (lines 11-14). Gary not only knew how to cry, but unlike Nikki, she was also able to sleep. This departure from her relationship with her mother is significant to understanding Nikki Giovanni’s whole at-home community, for Nikki’s sister seemed to have it all, as Nikki notes in her autobiographical essays and shares in her lectures. Nikki grew up literally under Gary, often admiring her and “bending” to her will, while loving her fiercely.

Nikki then goes on to write: “I laugh easily / And I smile / And withhold any true / Feelings” (lines 15-18). Basically, Nikki laughs to keep from crying, which is a common mode of survival within Black communities. According to Smith: “Thurman writes that ‘at the core of life is a hard purposefulness, a determination to live.’ This purposefulness is not a drive that occurs in isolation,” writes Smith, “for each expression of life is dependent upon other forms of life for the achievement of its potential” [author’s emphasis] (85). Although withholding one’s true feelings is a pretense that may invite unauthentic relationships,  laughing and holding back one’s true feelings are absolutely an expression of one’s “determination to live,” for falling apart — feeling — is a luxury, I think, many Black people (mothers, activists, teachers) cannot afford, for they may not be able to put themselves back together again. I think in the same way Nikki felt she was not afforded the luxury of feeling, neither did Jesus, which is why He did not “fall apart” until the latter part of his life. But to Thurman’s first point, Nikki’s determination to live was dependent upon her relatedness with others such as her mother, her sister, as well as her teacher and father, both of whom Nikki addresses next in her poem.

In the 11 lines following Nikki’s claiming to “withhold any true feelings,” she writes:

Except once I fell in love
With my eighth grade teacher
And spent most of my life trying
To feel safe
Again
Though maybe
I’m safe
Now
After almost thirty years
Which is as long
As I lived with my mother

These lines direct readers to the “mother-love” relationships Nikki found in her teachers, although she speaks of only one here. Nevertheless, in her “mother-love” relationships with teachers, Nikki fulfills Thurman’s second point re: “reality is community” (85). According to Thurman, says Smith, “Reality is community because all creation works together for the completion of the telos of life itself” (85). Nikki’s will to “fall in love” is her conscious intent of being whole, as implied in the lines: “And spent most of my life trying / To feel safe / Again” (ll. 21-23). As noted earlier, Nikki’s father was abusive, and as a result of no longer being able to witness that abuse, Nikki moved to Knoxville with her grandparents where they, as well as Nikki’s teachers, became her safe place(s). However, it is Nikki’s “determination to live” that invites her community to “support the groaning of [her] life toward fulfillment” (Smith 85). Undoubtedly, Nikki’s move to Knoxville, away from her parents, coupled with her will to fall in love, express Nikki’s “groaning of life.”

Furthermore, Nikki’s experience with loving her eighth-grade teacher signals her acquaintance with a loving God, which supports Thurman’s third point: “God is ‘the fact of life from which all other things take their meaning and reality’” (qtd. in Smith 86).  God is All. God is the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end. In making his final point, says Smith, Thurman explains how ultimate reality is perceived through knowing God, claiming such knowing is a religious experience — but not in the traditional brick-and-mortar-church-attending religious experience. Instead, one experiences God inside loving relationships — which, although I am focused here on relationships with people — includes (as Shug Avery[13] teaches us) all sentient beings. According to Smith, most important to Thurman’s ideas re: God as ultimate reality is understanding “God is not only creator, holy presence, form, and vitality, but God is also love. God embraces creation with compassion” (87). Nikki experienced God’s love within the mentorship relationship she shared with her eighth-grade teacher, for that teacher’s compassion for Nikki mirrored the compassion God has for all creation; God’s love is the ultimate “mother-love.” Thus, in that mother-loving relationship with her teacher, Nikki finds safety and, therefore, “a new sense of self” (87). Quoting Smith entirely best explains my point:

[T]he individual attains knowledge about ultimate concerns through an encounter with God; it is within this encounter that God is experienced as love. Thurman describes the individual’s experience as that which results in ‘the confidence of ultimate security.’ The individual feels embraced completely by a loving power that is responsive to his/her needs. And this not only discloses God’s nature, but it gives the individual a new sense of self. The fact that this love would be poured out upon individuals gives them the assurance of their worth within the heart of God … It is God’s compassion at this most personal level which therefore leads to the conclusion that the relationship with God is characterized by intimacy. God’s nearness is more than proximity and knowing; it is caring response to a person’s deepest needs. This experience of intimacy has the effect of making all matters of ultimate meaning conform with the sensation of God’s love. Whatever is ultimately meaningful must be consistent with God’s loving embrace of life, which includes God’s embrace of the individual. [emphasis mine] (87-88)

Thus, in Nikki’s relationship with her teacher, as well as her relationship with her grandparents, especially her grandmother, Nikki Giovanni is reacquainted with God. (And I offer reacquaintance because Nikki’s mother is her first God experience; however, the at-home abuse she witnessed was dispiriting.) Nonetheless, Nikki’s second stanza concludes with her contemplating her safety, writing: “Though maybe / I’m safe / Now / After almost thirty years / Which is as long / As I lived with my mother” (ll. 24-29).

In addition to being the poem’s volta, which is the rhetorical shift in thought or emotion, these five lines suggest Nikki’s reinstatement, if you will, of her feeling safe with her mother. Here, and into her final two stanzas, Nikki assumes her Jesus self, wherein, theorizes Thurman, “As individuals seek to conform their lives to the love felt in their religious experience, they come to the awareness that the life of the self is inextricable from the welfare of the social order” (88). Although Nikki’s poem doesn’t unveil all the creative contributions Nikki has given the world, especially her Black community, those of us familiar with Nikki Giovanni, know her life — most of which was spent in community with her mother — was also spent “inextricable from the welfare of the social order” (88). Nikki has dedicated her entire creative life manifesting Creator through her relationships with others; and they are documented in poem. As such, Nikki’s “greater sense of self is accompanied by a sense of community. Therefore, [she] seek[s] to increase the expression of love within society” (88). In the beginning was the Word …

Finally, Nikki’s last two stanzas conclude thusly:

Maybe that’s not a poem
Maybe that’s something else
Maybe I just wanted to show my father
That he needn’t be
Cruel
Maybe I just enjoyed buying
The house he had to live in
Showing her she should have married
Me instead of him
Or maybe since we will all soon
Be gone
I should be happy I found
My mother in someone
Else who loves me

What else
Really matters

Considering Nikki uses the term “maybe” five times in these final verses (seven times throughout the entire poem), I think we can arguably conclude these verses are musings meant for the poet’s own contemplation — similar to Jesus’s prayers in Gethsemane. Although Nikki may not be in agony as the about-to-be-crucified Jesus was, Nikki’s introspective tone — which is at first sullen, then self-righteous, and finally, resigned — suggests she’s been carrying a burden. And no one can be burdened by that or with whom she is not in relationship.

For whatever reason Nikki purchased the house both her parents “had to live in,” undoubtedly love operated in her decision to house and nurture both her parents with a spirit representing God’s immanence and transcendence. Nikki’s shifting tone and her five “maybes” in these last stanzas speak to Thurman’s notion that “whatever is inexplicable has been attributed to God’s mystery … [and] participation in God’s mystery results in coming to know God as a caring personality” (87). When people know God so intimately, argues Thurman, they desire to share that love with others, thus becoming an “instrument of that love” (88). And when love is given, it, too, is received. “What else / Really matters,” (ll. 44-45) asks Nikki in a question that is not a question at all.   

With all of that said, and much left unsaid, I am quite convinced: In Jesus-like fashion, Nikki Giovanni has traveled here to be our right (or write) hand of fellowship, moving inside love and living from its center, so Black Americans may know themselves as they authentically are — so that, we, too, may know God as Nikki knows — and are brazen enuf to pass that mother-love on to others. And that is worth a good cry.  

Works Cited

Du Bois, W.E.B. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” The Souls of Black Folks, Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003, pp. 7-15.

—. “Baby West.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 4-7.

—. “Chasing Utopia.” Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid, William Morrow, 2013, pp. 1-3.

—. “Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why).” The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, William Morrow, 2003, pp. 125-126.

—. “Gemini—A Prolonged Autobiographical Statement on Why.” Gemini: An Extended

Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty Years of Being a Black Poet, Penguin Group, 1971, pp. 133-149.

—. A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017.

—. “A Haiku for Mars.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, p. 17.

—. “A Higher Level of Poetry.” Acolytes, William Morrow, 2007, p. 103.

—. “I Married My Mother.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 60-61.

—. “Morning Breakfast Routines.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 73-74.

—. “Nikki-Rosa.” The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, William Morrow, 2003, p 53.

—. “Poseidon Hears His Baby Boy Crying.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and  Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 75-76.

—. “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars).” Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems  and Not Quite Poems, Harper Perennial, 2011, pp. 1-4.

—. “Space: Our Frontier.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 9-11.

Smith, Luther E. “Intimate Mystery: Howard Thurman’s Search for Ultimate Meaning.” Ultimate Reality and Meaning, vol. 11, no. 2, June 1988, https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/uram.11.2.85.

Spirit Filled Life Bible for Students: Learning and Living God’s Word by the Power of His Spirit. Edited by Jack W. Hayford, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.

[1] Reference to Philip José Farmer’s 1979 science fiction novel, Jesus on Mars (Pinnacle Books)

[2] Line 2 of Giovanni’s “A Haiku for Mars” from A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, 2017, p. 17

[3] Reference to Giovanni’s “Chasing Utopia” essay from Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid, 2013, pp. 1-3

[4] Line 30 of Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa” poem, first collected in Black Judgement (Broadside Lotus Press, 1968), quoted here from The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni (William Morrow, 2003), p. 53

[5] Title of Giovanni’s 1970 collection

[6] During one of her lectures I attended at Florida State University circa 2000, Giovanni discussed the “alien nature” of Africans who survived the Middle Passage and re-created themselves in a New World that endeavored to dehumanize them. She was making her claim for why Blacks are well-suited for space travel, noting they “remained humane under inhumane conditions,” and therefore, could guarantee NASA they’d return to Earth as the spirited human beings they are.

[7] Phrase from line 2 of Giovanni’s prose piece, “A Higher Level of Poetry,” from Acolytes (William Morrow, 2007), p. 103

[8] Final line in Giovanni’s “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars),” from Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems (William Morrow, 2002), pp. 1-4

[9] Reference to Giovanni’s poem with same title from A Good Cry, 2017, pp. 73-74.

[10] Often quoted phrase coined by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French idealist philosopher and Jesuit priest

[11] “Mother-love” is not limited to mothers who give birth. “Mother-love” can occur in relationships where a person (teacher, aunt, mentor, friend) acts as a nourishing source for another who needs such care. A “mother-love” relationship is a relationship of care. 

[12] Howard Thurman (1899-1981) was an African-American theologian, philosopher, and social activist whose ideas about religion and community informed civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr.

[13] In Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple, character Shug Avery teaches the dispirited Celie that God is All. She relies on nature to make her point, telling Celie, “I believe God is everything … trees … air … birds … other people” (167).

 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


Kendra N. Bryant NCAT HeadshotKendra N. Bryant is assistant professor of English and composition director at North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro. A graduate of Florida A&M University (Tallahassee) and University of South Florida (Tampa), Kendra has an M.Ed. in English Education and a Ph.D. in English Rhetoric & Composition. In addition to almost 20 years of classroom teaching, she has published poems and essays along with scholarly articles in works such as The Inside Light: New Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston (2010); The Journal of Basic Writing (2013); Studies in Popular Culture (2015); and Multiculturalism in Higher Education (2020). She is currently working on a poetry manuscript and actively blogs at her website: drknbryant.com.  

 

 

By Allia Abdullah-Matta, PhD

&

As if one could ever forget the image of a visibly Black woman poised on a brown and white pinto horse in the center of a city street. Tinted dreadlocks under her black fedora/top-hat blend, long feather earring, decorative knee-high boots, long-strands of pearls around her neck, a bow in hand adorned with an Indigenous dream catcher, feathers blowing in the wind: She is jessica Care moore. She is “from an army of glowing yellow / black princesses / some of us indigenous, even if the full blood family don’t claim us” (We Want Our Bodies Back 57-62); this poet, activist, publisher, educator, performer, and mother describes her presence in the womb as “the fire in her mother’s belly” who became “just a little brown girl / in pigtails and poems.” I would know moore and her poems anywhere — on the Showtime at the Apollo and Def Poetry Jam stages, strolling in the lobby of a conference hotel with her son King — especially the way her spoken word resonates in my ears and on the page. moore has trained a generation of witnesses and poets. She started Moore Black Press in 1997, which published four of her poetry collections, The Words Don’t Fit in My Mouth (1997), The Alphabet Verses the Ghetto (2003), God is Not an American (2008), and Sunlight Through Bullet Holes (2014); and recorded an album, Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James (Javotti Media, 2015). Her fifth collection, We Want Our Bodies Back (Amistad, 2020), begins as an homage to Sandra Annette Bland (1987-2015) and serves as an important cultural, historical, and poetic reckoning in which moore reminds us about the urgency of reclaiming Black bodies. She characterizes the text as an active “call to action, [and] to prayer, for women who’ve lost family members, our children, and even our own lives to unjustified police violence and profiling” (Meridians 2018). moore dedicates the collection to Bland and Ntozake Shange, and throughout the body of the text she constructs a tableau of some of the most important Black poets and musicians in African American letters and cultural production. We Want Our Bodies Back is moore’s cultural and poetic love song to her people, and she implores us to preserve our history, to hold onto our lives and souls, and to fight to breathe.

moore discusses her bodily experiences, how she felt as a curious girlchild who knew things and “was allowed to be a girl” (“Introduction” xv) and she sounds an alarm about how early our bodies are threatened. She addresses that Black women’s bodies “can be in danger in public spaces, let alone private ones,” notes the ways in which Black women artists such as herself and Betty Davis (1970s funk icon) experience “erasure from the male dominated entertainment industry,” and states her intention to combat this erasure by reclaiming and creating “a safe space to speak about the sexism and silencing of Black women’s voices in the arts” (xix) through Black WOMEN Rock! Further, moore indicates her artistic, political, and poetic intentions to situate the experiences of girls’ and women’s bodies by posing questions that she answers throughout the text — “when you decide to give your body to someone, what exactly do you receive in exchange? If we, in fact, do ‘choose’ to ‘give up our bodies,’ when do we get to have our bodies back?” (xviii)

We Want Our Bodies Back calls us to stand at attention; moore frames the collection with the spirit of “artist, musical storyteller, and griot” Nina Simone (1933-2003). The four section titles echo Simone’s song titles: “Wild Is the Wind,” “I Put a Spell On You,” “I Got Life,” and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” Thus, moore places readers under a concrete and symbolic spell marked by ancestry, history, language, memory, music, poetics, voice, and witness. moore takes readers on a journey of existence and subjugation, and she makes Black folks remember the power and significance of our breath and the word.

The poem “She Was.” in the “Wild Is the Wind” section takes up issues of history, language, and voice. The speaker begins with the politics of language for African Americans in the west:

I have convinced myself
I speak french
Somehow I will find a way to make
a Perfect sound

An: un/english

I don’t know
What else to do
With this language cept
Murder it. (9)

moore does several things in this poem: She points to historical and contemporary violence against Black people and their culture, language, and bodies. She plays with the so-called conventions of language as well as poetic form and space on the page; her choice to capitalize some words in the beginning and others in middle of lines, and to make proper nouns (“french” and “english”) lowercase, indicates her intention to create and enforce new language rules (“An: un/english”). The speaker can only “murder” the language, “Dig out its eyes. Every vowel. Till it suffocates” (10), which emphasizes the linguistic and bodily trauma of Black people:

Choke the breath out of this alphabet
I need more than 26 letters to articulate
How I survived you.
How we survived
calculated attempts to blow
the heads                                 off our sons (lines 11-16)

She illustrates that experience(s) are “marked” by language and “unmarked” by her poetics of meaning and her attention to form. Her clever uses of capitalization, punctuation, line/stanza spacing are clearly at odds with the language itself. She collapses short phrases into one line (“Dig out its eyes. Every vowel. Till it suffocates”), and places one-liner single stanzas throughout: “An: un/English,” “I prefer a sober hallucination” (31); “the editors are resisting my twist in plot” (43); and “is this a poem or a romance?” (46).

moore’s speaker refers to numerous attempts to kill the sons of her people and reminds readers that these poems are narratives of survival. Throughout the collection, moore refers to the horrific murders of Black bodies (Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner), all of which were public lynchings across the United States. It is important to note that moore wrote and performed the poem “We Want Our Bodies Back” as part of fundraising and activist work to support the family of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. She was one of the few women speakers asked to perform, and it was her intention to situate Bland and to make sure that folks would say and remember her name. moore illustrates that Black women are on the front lines, and she uses and relates her own physical and spiritual fatigue and trauma to others, as a result of “years of activism and the pain of black mothering in a time of war” (Meridians 230). Thus, her tone is unapologetic and her movement across the page in “She was.” skillfully scaffolds the past and the present. She contextualizes history and culture in the midst of our attempt to survive and love ourselves. Her stanzas are a mélange of an African past: “Veil full of cowrie shells”; “The Door of No Return”; a spiritual presence, “plastered afroed yemanja,” “she spoke French / senegalese dialect, “queen kuntas,” “Oya laughed”; layers of romantic love, “jessica is always in love / love is a distraction from love,” “our bodies/fell in love”; and ancestry in “she wears the same petals my grandmother wore,” “figure the ocean is our most authentic / photo album,” “we just know we Moors’ / conquered Spain” (9-17).

In the poem “I am not ready to die,” also in the “Wild Is the Wind” section, moore highlights how Black women are objectified and subjugated:

I wish these new girls would get the fuck
off their knees and transform
a room
With subtle power and grace (lines 8-11)

moore poses questions that challenge readers to think about the problematic messages that flood popular music and culture: “When did it become okay to die in this country / On our knees?” (lines 14-15). She contrasts the valueless messages that inspire folks to be on their knees and points to the importance of self-education to combat digital slavery:

I read books without screens
I have sex with men my age
                        whenever i feel like it.

I love my hair, my ass, my breasts.
I’m clear that my power is between my ears
Inside my chest.

Black girl magic doesn’t grow between our legs (37-43)

This is an important critique about how Black women should value their bodies and not follow “the mythology of men” (line 44). The speaker’s reference to loving the natural contours of her body (her hair, breasts, and ass) situates the contemporary narrative around women’s bodies and a culture that does not honor the nature of Black bodies. Here moore claps back at a culture that pimps implants and unhealthy, problematic constructions of sexuality, and perpetuates women on their knees and on stripper poles. She asks, “how much / ?   to get you off your knees? / Sis?” (lines 45-47). This poem also grounds a revolutionary commentary that privileges the stream of self-awareness and change that runs through the collection:

Imma keep living inside poems
you didn’t know were left

for you

If you would just get off the got-damn
FLOOR you could see. (lines 59-63)

moore admonishes women to get off of their knees and to stand up as Queens. She gestures to a list of women singers and hip-hop artists, “microphones are not stripper poles” (line 83). She follows the philosophy and action of foremother poet Sonia Sanchez. In “The Poet as a Creator of Social Values,” Sanchez states, “the poet then, even though she speaks plainly, is a manipulator of symbols and language-images which have been planted by experience in the collective subconscious of a people. Through this manipulation, she creates new or intensified meaning and experience whether to the benefit or detriment of her audience” (20). moore manipulates symbols and language throughout this collection and illustrates that her work is a call to action and to consciousness.

The section I Put a Spell on You further establishes moore as a cultural historian and poet who passes down memory, music, poetics, and voice. “Because if I don’t write” is a Black girl’s treatise that holds her living memory, experience(s), and voice. moore references Shange and Angelou and her own act of writing and leaving Black girls “a trail of tears” as witnessed by the documentation of their lives, and what they need to know to preserve memory and their souls:

Because if i don’t write
You will write for me
tell historians black girls were
crazy
invisible
lost in time
Wishing to turn our bodies inside out
Become unrecognizable to our own mothers
Desecrate our faces
Because we hated our own
mirrors. (lines 27-37)

moore points to a potential failure of collective consciousness and existence if Black girl identity is not passed down by the foremothers, such as the many Black women artists moore names throughout this collection. Who will write to tell the truth of Black bodily experiences if not Black people? While moore’s collection refers to the desecration of the bodies and faces of Black men and women, “Because if I don’t write” emphasizes the need to mark the story of the Black girl, and allows others to say and know her name(s); this story solidifies moore’s writing as political act and intention, “I write to live / to prove to black girls everywhere / we are possible” (lines 55-57). The poem “on memory” in the “I Got Life” section further exemplifies the significance of memory, voice, and writing as a political act; moore’s use of questions is particularly powerful in this section and points to her skill at experimental poetics:

1.
Why do you write about the
Right now

?

The right now                         needed me. (1-4)

The two poems “We Are Born Moving,” dedicated to moore’s city (Detroit) and her daddy (T. D. Moore), and “Where Are the People?” in this same section address forced migrations due to enslavement, Jim Crow segregation, racial terror, and class. These pieces continue moore’s work as cultural historian. She posits, “humanity is not just oil, it is blood” (59), moves through the complexities of her family’s migration from Madison, Alabama to Detroit, and documents the city’s economic and industrial shifts. Both poems indicate the migratory expansion of Black families and communities in urban spaces. moore’s stanzas in “Where Are the People,” constructed as lists, continue to pose questions:

Where are the people?
The stepped over, the forgotten holocaust
The Fragile, the beautiful, the fast talkers,
The backward walkers, the 3am stalkers
Where did they take them.
When will they return
Where is the balance
Where is the money
Where are the schools?
Where are the people?
We all got Wi-fi
nobody getting high outside (lines 27-38)

moore takes readers from the past to the present of digital slavery and expects them to acknowledge what has occurred and what continues to happen to Black folks. The poet as witness asks that the community process its current semi-fugue state. Where are the people after the crises and decay of urban communities as a result of politics, poverty, drug addiction, and violence? “Who signed the death certificates / Where are the magicians, the madmen, the toothless, the smoothest, the poets” (lines 2-3), and “the traffic stoppers;” “Under which pile of gravel / Where are they buried” (lines 10-11).

We Want Our Bodies Back allows us to retrieve our bodies. moore situates poetry as the ultimate witness and illustrates that art is the vehicle to tell the stories of women. She is a “poet worth her weight in syllables” who presents a clear understanding of what is going on in our world; moore helps us “to make sense of our bodies burnt by cigarettes, and smoked out of our neighborhoods” (Medina 21). She “construct[s] a survival guide, a poem / for our daughters’ bodies” and a hauntingly beautiful blues/love song to her people, to help us to preserve our history, to hold onto our lives and souls, and to continue to fight to breathe:

If black women could
Be cut down. No.
Removed, gently,
              from American terrorism/
Who would break our fall?
Which direction would we travel
 To feel safe?

wild is the wind

***

We want our bodies back

              We want our bodies back

                                          We want our bodies back!

 

Works Cited

Medina, Tony. “Meditations on Moore: One.” The Words Don’t Fit in My Mouth. Moore Black Press, 1997, pp. 12-14.

moore, jessica Care. We Want Our Bodies Back. Amistad, 2020.

—. “We Want Our Bodies Back.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, vol. 16, no. 2, 2018: pp. 230-237.

—. “We Want Our Bodies Back.” Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series. M Stamps School Art & Design, University of Michigan, Fall 2017.

Sanchez, Sonia. “The Poet as a Creator of Social Values.” The Black Scholar, vol. 16, no. 1, January/February 1985, pp. 20-22, 24-25, 27-28.


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


AAM Pic
Allia Abdullah-Matta is a poet and teacher-scholar who uses creativity and artistic expression as instruments of social justice activism and transformation.  She is an Associate Professor at CUNY LaGuardia, where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. She was the co-recipient of the The Jerome Lowell DeJur Prize in Poetry (2018) from The City College of New York (CCNY). Her poetry has been published in Newtown Literary, Promethean, Marsh Hawk ReviewMom Egg Review VoxGlobal City Review, and the Jam Journal Issue of Push/Pull.

 

 

 

 

 

by Tsitsi Jaji, PhD

&

Matthew Shenoda’s voice is dangerous, mystical, moving. Sonia Sanchez’s introduction ushered readers into his first collection, Somewhere Else (Coffee House Press, 2005), auguring how his work thrusts us to the threshold of images never encountered before. She spoke, anaphoric and euphoric:

I say, who is this poet who sings down the lids of deserts with color?
I say, I say, who is this poet always punctual with his eyes, his heart his hands?
I say I say, I say, who is this poet who mixes poetry and philosophy, who leads us into “the skulls of the ancients” residing in the Eastern Sahara: “Each sphere of bone / a voice // A cage / of warrior mind.”

            What does “Coptic” taste like? (xi)

Let us take Sanchez’s questions as our guide. As she says, Shenoda’s work sings in the mystic and material idioms of the desert, never shying away from the stark sightings one catches of his native Egypt and its wanderings both internal and in diaspora. Let us read his work together and carry the question — What does “Coptic” taste like? — to its lyrical conclusions.

Begin here: Shenoda’s parents are Egyptian Copts, members of the most widespread Christian denomination in North Africa, inheritors of the traditions of the Desert Fathers and, also by tradition, adherents to a faith first founded by the apostle Mark a few years after the death of Christ. Those origins are the vast landscapes Shenoda’s language traverses, and they map the trajectory of African diasporas often overlooked. His body carries across ancient ruins, isolated villages, crowded Cairo streets, an L.A. highway. His work speaks to an imagined all-America and a pan-Arab audience. Begin here.

This first collection starts with an epigraph, a Zulu proverb from the other end of the continent:

A word uttered
cannot be taken
back (x)

The route from South Africa to Egypt was infamously charted by Cecil John Rhodes and his lewd imperial ambition, a column of British power stretching from Cape to Cairo. Shenoda prefigures the #RhodesMustFall movement among South African students, who in 2015 tore down a statue on University of Cape Town’s campus. Toppling the monument of Rhodes’s brass knuckles pointing northward to Africa’s northern coast, they inaugurated a fiery debate about the future of decolonial education. In Shenoda’s Egypt as in the Fallists’ South Africa, art declares: The people, united, will never be defeated. Shenoda’s poetry, speaking with a gravity born of elemental word choices and direct grammar, travels across geographies of liberation precisely because its words reveal truths, which, once unhidden, haunt the reader with new responsibility.

These first poems apprehend bodily pain in all its rawness and translate its circumstances in vivid language: The sparseness of his diction and clear, calm descriptions turn readers into witnesses to the agonies of surviving history. But the past does not own Shenoda’s voice, which also renders the difficult truth that the beauty of coming fully alive costs dearly. Read these poems out loud and you will try, maybe, to back out of what you have just repeated, lines so sharply beautiful that their truth verges on a curse:

Great-Grandmother used to say,
“If you throw salt away
God will make you
pick it up
one grain at a time
with your eyelashes” (3)

Shenoda’s vision stings.

Much of the work seeks out the poor, the sacred and the ecological; worlds too quickly squelched in the rush of contemporary cosmopolitan living. The writerly technique of entangled first- and third-person voices attend to the ignored details of a worker’s body, the “kneecap of a man whose only hope was grounding toil / Scrubbing my skin with the earth for food” (23). Elsewhere the desert is home to other ignored voices, here silenced by Christendom’s erasures of its African roots, as “two thousand years of chants and prayers / seclude themselves in the eastern desert” (6). The poetry’s revelations do not come cheap. These are “songs to sing when sorrow / has taken flight in us” (21), poems that wander through crowded streets and forgotten villages where the poet’s most important work is witness. He shows us the glint of a gold chain suspending a Coptic cross snatched from a woman’s neck “Standing on the Corner” in Cairo (3). He makes us watch as Los Angeles police savage black and brown people with billy clubs “on the bilingual highway / where color means a beating / if your taillight flashes / anything other / than English” (49). And he does not look away from a man whose “enemy stripped him of his clothes / and dipped his nude body in tar, [then compounded cruelty, capturing] a buffalo — and with her tail, tied the man to her haunches, / beat her and watched / the abused parade the town square” (8). Shenoda unriddles nothing; instead, his poems work at the nub of human experience, delicate and deadly.

Shenoda instructs us by example, invocation, and manifesto as to what language must do in a world unsurvivable unless it changes:

We speak forgiveness
like giraffe tongues
long & ready to unravel

We speak ancestor codes of
handshake body language
& “brother I got your back” (68–9)

The past unravels our future in the intimate touch between bodies, living and remembered, human and animal, rural and street.

The second collection, Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone (BOA Editions Ltd., 2009), leans more heavily into the parabolic language of a sage. I quote the full text of its first riddle, “Schism,” to linger over the sphinxlike elegance of this beginning in pause and puzzle, taking time:

One man dreams
Of fire
But cannot strike
Two sticks 

Together

One man strikes
Two sticks
But cannot dream
Of fire (13)

The collection’s title and this first poem alert us to the work Shenoda expects of his readers: where the first collection’s title called upon our geographic imagination, in Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, if we are to grapple with the mystical, the movement, the malleable idioms of these Seasons, our imaginations must give time to his poems. What will that look like, a double dreaming of time as flowering lotus and dessicated bone? We can look for the ways he adopts multiple indigenous time zones, ways of understanding history in Egypt’s Arab and Coptic present, its African cycles of fertility, its ancient pictograms. These poems walk us through the palimpsests of modern Cairo and decipher this city’s construction by stacked generations: “Ingenuity is the notion of building / On a foundation made from loss” (14). His African animism says, “Lord, my roots sprout three trunks. // Lord, I am a rock made of wheat” (18).” Nature reminds us how to read hieroglyphics, a script that, “like sky / contains no end” (21), its image-writing clearest in a grandmother’s sun-warts, or the pale blue rings around an uncle’s clouding pupils. In the collection’s title we have the promise of a passing: We are only in this poem-world for a season, maybe two. And that passing, an inner exile of sorts, makes the way we carry memory, and translate it, all the more mysterious.

Shenoda’s parabolic imagination often syncs time with the arrivals and departures of Egypt’s ecologies, as he does “In the Season of Paremhat,” a poem named after the Nile’s leavings that fertilize a nation’s seeds, cross-pollinating counter/intuition:

Our hands fork silt
To make music

Music is the way we forget to talk
We say, music is the way we forget to talk (30)

Working with our hands is holy work, silt to sustain, silt’s pour is silt’s song, and song its own Mesmer. Always, in these seasons, there is the sense of a time to come that shows first through the weft of poetic text. What gorgeous mysteries will come in continuance? What deciphering will we do, running light fingers over code “tightly woven in the curls of her hair / the rosetta stone of tomorrow.” What rough tenderness will we learn as we watch how a mother “thrusts to the knee // cracks the cane / disseminates sweetness / fibrous light in their mouths”? (59–60) These lines show us the world is vital text in plain view but only if we pay attention, read and reread surfaces caught in a glance. The particular rhythm of these quick-takes emerges in deceptively spare distillations, spelling out sense that holds together lightly, like the gesturing hands of devout men in conversation, like a stone tablet relaying across languages.

Shenoda’s most recent collection, Tahrir Suite (Triquarterly, 2014), seems less riddle than epic, but in this book-length chronicle of two personae migrating from their home in Egypt to a global north as unmapped as it is unknowable, their odyssey is punctuated only by questions. Tekla and Isis’s lives at the margins emerge in text alternately justified right and left, and what lyric poetry can do, leaving the center, the narrative thread unspecified, turns their journey into a modern migration fable of sorts. The specificity of this story is exquisite, just as its mysticism is insistent. Glossing the title, Shenoda writes Tahrir (literally “liberation” in Arabic) is the square in downtown Cairo where Egyptians overthrew Hosni Mubarak in 2011 after his 30 years in power, but also, two years later, deposed elected president Mohamed Morsi, giving way to military rule and “some of the bloodiest and most divisive [months] in modern Egyptian history” (75).

Shenoda’s eye for gesture as a dense archive of story draws readers into Isis’s inner landscape of desire and drudgery. We do not look into her face so much as through it, a mask and a shield, yes, but also the only home she will never leave. Much of her narrative is spent in waiting, drawing to the surface the way time is gendered and how what appears an impulsive action emerges from hours of solitary reflection. Applying iconic eyeliner becomes a secret operation of resolve:

She fought herself to feel for something more
Prayed the ash of resistance into kohl
And painted her eyes to see (15)

Entering the theater of intimate relationships becomes the work of a silent, ambiguous sisterhood:

She borrowed a face from the woman next door
And descended the steps (17)

And, with Shenoda’s particular attention to the humble, the mystical, the ecological, Isis reads antique messages etched into what might be a splinter, or a fossil — messages we sense her taking time to decipher, bent over in a limitless solitude:

She reached beneath her feet to pull a chunk of wood
Shaped like a human heart
She traced the spiral pattern that the insects bore
And closed her eyes for silence (20)

Isis and Tekla’s journey is, of course, urgent, which is why the stretches of time spent in wait feel so taught. The weight of fear presses upon them, making choice an abstraction in the shadow of political and sectarian violence:

In the hail of lead
We were made to understand our veins
Forget the vestiture of desire
Cloak ourselves in an impeding life (47)

To live in diaspora we flee carrying nothing but our own history in our mouths. This is the truth of a Caribbean raconteur’s call, Crick! and our response, Crack! And this is the truth that holds Tekla and Isis together, living off of the story of themselves. But they know, too, that narration becomes fiction, sometimes willful, sometimes forced.

If splendid were a tale you tell
You’d praise the past as if it hadn’t pierced
You’d gather your new neighbors
And perjure all the night (53)

The lies we tell ourselves to keep going are ours nonetheless:

After years of building something new
Conviction vanished
Anywhere was here
Definition a fabrication in the story (57)

Shenoda’s poetic idiom is no fabrication; in each of his books his language carries the weight of truth, a lyrical fabric of recurring words, memory, struggle. We hear his voice speaking through persona: “My voice is my only spear,” says a wandering immigrant far from home (60). My voice is my only spear, I think, regretful as I close the book. My voice is my only spear, I remember, hearing in my inner ear the deliberate, bass echo of Shenoda at a podium. My voice is my only spear, and I do not know if I need a shield. My voice is my only spear, and I cannot fight alone. Neither can you. The fight, and the fiddle, is us. Read Shenoda with me.

Works Cited

Shenoda, Matthew. Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone. Rochester, BOA Editions Ltd., 2009.

—. Somewhere Else. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 2005.

—. Tahrir Suite. Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 2014.

 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


tsitsi-jaji
Tsitsi Jaji is the author of two poetry collections, Mother Tongues (2019, winner of the Cave Canem Northwestern UP Award), and Beating the Graves (2017, African Poetry Book Series), as well as a chapbook, Carnaval (2014) in Seven New Generation African Poets. She is an associate professor at Duke University, and author of a monograph, Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity (2014). Raised in Zimbabwe, she considers herself an African poet and an African American scholar.

 

 

By McKinley Melton, PhD

&After years of engaging with Dominique Christina’s poetry in the classroom, watching students be awed by her writing as well as her extraordinary delivery, I finally had the opportunity to bear witness to her live performance when I invited her to the Gettysburg campus as part of a spoken word poetry series. Christina’s visit was, in a word, electric. My students were nearly overwhelmed by her presence, with one of them writing in their reflection that “the room could have sparked and torn with the energy she channeled, with the spirits she called.” Enhancing the power of Christina’s presence was the fortuitous coincidence that we scheduled her visit for Tuesday, November 8, 2016. With the presidential election as a backdrop, the richness and complexity of Christina’s work shone through. Her poetry, emphasizing Black women’s subjectivities, foregrounds themes of speech and silence while challenging shame as an impediment to survival. Moreover, the insistence that we engage with the historical breadth and the contemporary consequence of her work powerfully mirrored the challenge with which we would all be faced — how to stand up and speak out against a reality that we had not dared to imagine yet history tells us was always possible.

During her visit, one piece that resonated significantly was “The Period Poem” from her 2015 collection, They Are All Me.[i] Christina framed the poem by inviting the audience to interrogate the biblical narrative of Eve and the Garden of Eden in order to confront the idea of menstruation as a consequence for woman’s original sin. Working to undermine the continual shame that women and young girls are made to feel about the natural biological process, Christina crafts the poem as an open letter.  First, she addresses a “nameless dummy on Twitter” who had proudly claimed to have broken up with his girlfriend because her period commenced in the midst of sexual intercourse (112). She challenges his “disdain / For what a woman’s body can do” and offers him “an anatomy lesson infused with feminist politics / because I hate you” (112).  Explaining the anatomical reality of a uterus shedding itself “every 28 days or so,” Christina asserts that “the Feminist politic part is that women / Know how to let things go” and “how to become new, / How to regenerate” (113). Significantly, Christina posits a woman’s body as a space for both renewal as well as creation, noting that menstruation not only facilitates the creation of another person but also a revitalization of the self.

Indeed, rather than suggesting reproduction as the primary significance of a woman’s period, Christina first argues for a multiplicity of functions. In addition to the renewal of self, she also reflects on the communal force of menstruation, such that “women have vaginas that can speak to each other” and “our menstrual cycles will actually sync the fuck up” (113). Only after addressing these other implications of menstruation does Christina remind the Twitter dummy,

          But when your mother carried you,
          The ocean in her belly is what made you buoyant,
          Made you possible.
          You had it under your tongue when you burst through her skin (113)

Establishing the mother’s body as the creative origin for this man’s existence, Christina directly links the maternal act of creation with his capacity for speech, literally undergirding his tongue. Suggesting that his language, now used to malign women’s bodies, would be impossible without the nurturing space of his mother’s womb, Christina writes,

            THAT body wrapped you in everything
            That was miraculous about it and sang you
            Lullabies laced in platelets
            Without which you wouldn’t have a twitter account
            At all, motherfucker. (113)

The condemnation that Christina delivered, fueled by righteous indignation and armed with biological facts, was soon paired with the wish that he would be “blessed with daughters.” Noting that “Etymologically ‘Bless’ means: to make bleed,” Christina offers the “lesson in linguistics” in order that the dummy on Twitter might know, “in other words blood speaks” (115). Acknowledging that “blood speaks” in the face of this man’s careless use of speech on Twitter, she charges him to take on the role of listener, that he might eventually learn. The lesson, Christina continues, moves beyond etymology, as she suggests that “Your daughters will teach you / What all men must one day come to know” (115). That inevitable lesson, of how to handle “the blood” for which few are ever fully prepared, pairs the challenge of the poem with its promise for this man, for whom knowledge might dismantle the ignorance-fueled impulse for his tweet.

Lest the poem be directed entirely to this man, Christina shifts focus to her own daughter, who is the second and more important audience for this epistolary poem.  Having ably dispatched with the “nameless dummy,” she deliberately dedicates the final words of the poem to her daughter in order to arm her, “should any fool mishandle / the wild geography of your body” (115). She charges her daughter to “just BLEED” and “Give that blood a Biblical name, / Something of stone and mortar” (115-116). Echoing her initial challenge to the biblical narrative of the first woman’s invitation of sin into the world, Christina suggests that her daughter “name it after Eve’s first rebellion in that garden,” thereby revising the narrative that would call Eve’s action a sin and simultaneously refuting the supposed divine directive that man alone be given the patriarchal power to name (116). Seizing upon naming as right and privilege, she argues that her daughter name the blood “for all the women who’ll not be nameless here” — in parallel to her decrying the “nameless dummy on Twitter” — and offers a maternal directive to exercise that right:

            Name the blood something holy.
            Something mighty.
            Something un-languageable.
            Something in hieroglyphs.
            Something that sounds like the end of the world.  (116)

Empowering her daughter to name the blood that flows from her body, regardless of what “good furniture” it destroys (116), Christina rests the poem with the language of ownership and empowerment. Ultimately, she centers her daughter in a narrative that challenges the shame she is originally made to feel though she has committed no sin.

Students universally acknowledged the poem as one of the most affecting of the night. The power of this performance — on the very evening that many in the audience believed a woman would be elected president over a man who had denigrated a journalist by saying that she had “blood coming out of her wherever”[ii] and brazenly celebrated his ability to force himself on women and “grab ‘em by the pussy”[iii] — was immeasurable. As another student wrote in her reflection: “How could I witness Dominique’s fire and brilliance and not feel proud to be a member of the same half of the species? I felt like I was nineteen years old, a woman was going to be Commander in Chief come January, and women like Dominique Christina existed — so how could progress not be within my generational grasp?” Within a few hours, the reality of the election’s result would sink in.

When next we met, the students arrived to the classroom still numb in the aftermath of the election. We were able to process the election results in the midst of our scheduled conversation on Black female spoken word poets, in a class session that had been titled “Sister Speak: A Vocal Black Womanhood.” The alignment of Christina’s visit, the course material, and the election produced one of the most potent classroom conversations I’ve had in my teaching career. When the students spoke of the role that women played in securing Trump’s electoral win, someone returned to “The Period Poem,” raising the idea that the poem itself addresses biological womanhood and the popular “disdain for what a woman’s body can do,” without explicitly mentioning race. Yet, with 53% of white women supporting Trump’s candidacy and Black women maintaining almost uniform opposition, the election results clarified that gender alone didn’t determine how the votes were cast. We discussed the implications of this inconvenient truth for our ongoing conversations regarding intersectional Black womanhood and the importance of Black women’s voices in poetry as well as politics. As one student astutely argued, Christina did not explicitly mention race in this poem, yet she intentionally foregrounded her racial identity and that of her daughter. Through Christina’s choice to put her own body front and center, as a poet for whom performance held such tremendous meaning, there was no way to ignore or even to de-center race in our consideration of the poet or of her work. As one student argued, with whom I’m inclined to agree, “I think she’d be pissed if we even tried.”

I thought often of Christina’s visit to our campus, and the ensuing conversation in our classroom, while reading her most recent book of poetry, Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems.[iv] The National Poetry Series–winning collection endeavors to give voice to the titular enslaved woman who, while being denied pain-reducing anesthesia in addition to the right to consent, underwent multiple surgeries and procedures in forced service to the curiosities and career of Dr. J. Marion Sims, a man who would one day be hailed as “the father of modern gynecology.” This collection expands upon the conversations engendered by “The Period Poem” and Christina’s articulation of an intergenerational dialogue about women’s bodies, as well as the incoherency between the power of what those bodies can do and the disregard in which they are held. Anarcha Speaks, undoubtedly, also explores the particular and specific circumstances of intersecting race and gender, pivoting as it does around an enslaved woman whose condition is defined by her Blackness as well as her womanhood, even as the inhumane treatment to which she is subjected threatens to deny any sense of personhood to which she might lay claim.

Christina’s examination of the manner by which Black womanhood is reduced to the biological mechanics of reproduction clearly connects Anarcha and “The Period Poem.” Yet what makes Anarcha such a powerfully complex and layered work, like “The Period Poem” before it, is Christina’s ability to give voice to the silenced — whether an enslaved woman or “the blood” that must speak — and to enable the now voiced to speak, from an empowered and authoritative position, within an intergenerational conversation that carries the force of history in its articulation of themes that remain significant in the current moment. Christina’s work persists in the effort to center Black women, their voices and their experiences, within the historical record. Subsequently, she challenges a history wherein the silencing of Black women enables the myths that would, without any sense of irony, herald a man as the “father” of gynecological practice while negating the contributions of women, or propel a self-confessed “pussy-grabber” to the presidency with the support of a majority of white women’s votes.

Christina addresses the historical connection that drives her work in the dedication for Anarcha Speaks, acknowledging the ways that women like Anarcha operate as ancestors that prefigure her own Black womanhood.  She writes,

I am still reeling from the possessive nature of ancestral writing.  I am still humbled by elegy and the potential it holds to re-flesh the bones. I still tremble under the weight of history. The ships that carried folk I borrow bone and blood from to places they never imagined, where their suffering was bottomless. It is quite something to know they sizzle up through us and announce themselves still. Memory is aggressive. And long. And sometimes inherited. I elect to chase it down whenever possible. I intend to participate in as many resurrections as I can. (93)

Acknowledging the “possessive nature of ancestral writing” in her dedication, Christina recognizes that she must elect to chase memory down as she announces her intent to participate in as many resurrections as she can. She thereby foregrounds her own artistic agency in making the decision to center Anarcha while simultaneously reminding readers that the silencing of this enslaved woman’s voice was also a choice, a deliberate act. Just as Anarcha’s muting had explicit and intended consequences, so too does the decision to return her to a position of prominence. With Anarcha as both the central subject and the narrator for this collection, these poems participate in the ongoing project of challenging the marginalization of Black women within the historical record, extending all the way back to the ancestral figure of Eve.

In her efforts to “re-flesh the bones” of her foremother, Christina intentionally centers the voice of Anarcha herself, as indicated not only by the collection’s title, but also established in its tone-setting opening poem, “Anarcha Will Speak and It Will Be So.” The poem begins with the traumatic assault on Anarcha’s body:

          massa come in like he know i cain’t cry
          new tears

          he take what he want
          he keep a hot hand  (3)            

Though the violation of Anarcha’s body and personhood is the central act of these opening lines, Christina provides her reader with much more than an incident that would render “massa” as the active subject and Anarcha as the passive recipient of sexual violence. The slave master’s approach, from the outset, is shown to be rooted in his fictitious belief, rather than the fact of Anarcha’s existence. Christina outlines the way he moves “like he know,” which immediately alerts readers to the fact that he does not. The suggestion that this is a moment for the production of “new tears” also indicates that there were previous tears, establishing an emotional depth to Anarcha that predates this violent act. Anarcha, as a subject, does not begin with this violence, but exists in the fullness of her own humanity prior to massa’s entrance into the narrative. This is, in itself, a radical statement, as Christina works against a historical narrative that reduces Black women to tools of production, whose entrance into the historical record often comes with the documentation of purchase, or of birth, that indicates an increase to a master’s property more than it does the announcement of a human being into historical reality.

The next lines of the poem introduce readers to the ultimate violence that is enacted upon Anarcha through a process designed to both silence her and deny her any sense of agency or right to her own identity:

          every new hatred
          cinch my throat closed.

          he take me

          give me a name made outta iron
          he say it till i ain’t myself      (3)

The closing of Anarcha’s throat is enacted in response to an ambiguous hatred. One reading might suggest that the massa’s hatred for Anarcha, exercised through the violence that he inflicts on her is what cinches her throat closed. An alternate reading, however, suggests that Anarcha’s silence is an act of self-control, quieting any potential outburst of her hatred for the massa, the articulation of which would surely threaten her ability to survive in the aftermath of these acts. Regardless, the massa’s acts, and his display of power over her body, result in a closed throat. Her silenced state leaves the massa as the only speaking figure within the poem, enabling him to give Anarcha a name and to be the lone voice speaking it aloud. Significantly, however, this poem remains framed by its title and the narrative voice that reminds readers that this is Anarcha’s story to tell, and that she remains the speaker of the poem, even as she remains ostensibly silenced within it. The poem’s title functions as a succinct declaration, wherein the poet’s intentions for the collection are made clear by a definitive statement that leaves no room for ambiguity. Anarcha will speak and it will be so. This poem, and those that follow, collectively providing the willfully neglected history of the subjugation of Anarcha’s body, will turn on the power of Anarcha’s voice. The declarative “and it will be so” operates with absolute authority, prophetically establishing the path forward even while the collection offers a corrective lens onto the past.

Christina’s exploration of Black women’s subjectivities, throughout Anarcha as well as works published and performed prior to the release of this collection such as “The Period Poem,” is often framed through examinations of maternity. Yet, even as she remains invested in the consideration of Black women as ancestral figures, Christina avoids reducing Black women solely to the function of motherhood. Rather, she argues that their full lives must be excavated in order for her audience to thoughtfully reckon with the historical and contemporary place of Black women. Anarcha’s ability to exist as more than a body that experiences motherhood as a result of sexual assault, only to have that body violated again through painful medical exploration in the wake of giving birth, is examined throughout the collection. Christina exposes readers to Anarcha’s reflections on life in her master’s house, allowing her to bear witness to the treatment of other enslaved people including those recently purchased (“They Bringin in More”), those who seek to escape (“She Got Further Than Anybody”), and others who experience the pain of giving birth to children who they know they cannot truly claim as their own (“Lucy Made a Girl”). Christina also provides the full arc of Anarcha’s pregnancy, from the moment she is made aware of her pregnancy (“Don’t Wanna Hear It But”) to her awareness of the fetus’ presence (“Anarcha Feels Movement”) to the delivery (“This Time It Hurts”). The fact that all of this happens before the introduction of Dr. Sims is, again, significant, reminding readers that this was a woman with a complete life—full of complex thoughts and emotions—long before the introduction of the man in whose shadow history would place her.

Herein lies the most significant part of Christina’s work, the practice of “re-fleshing the bones” that history has discarded as unimportant and without value. Christina’s work of poetic recovery is not only for the validation of Anarcha, but also for those who claim her as ancestor, to those who continue to labor against the prominent narrative that they, and the people from which they come, have no dimension to their lives worthy of adulation. Christina acknowledges the intergenerational benefit of recovering Anarcha’s life in its fullness with the poem “The Chil’ren Might Know.”  She opens the poem with Anarcha’s musings of when they “once was warriors” (15). After, again, establishing the idea of a fullness of Black life before the arrival of white figures, Christina then presents a narrative wherein Anarcha hopes “maybe / they know we ain’t always / been so lowly” and suggests that

          maybe they can look past 
          the bruises
          to see when we
          were bigger underneath      (15)

Christina concludes the poem with Anarcha’s assertion that:

           we had hands once
           and a river to bathe in

            and names
            full names
            that called us home.

            the chil’ren might know that
            if they lookin at us right

            we lost our mouths
            ‘cross a mighty ocean.
            coulda died but we don’t know how . . .  (15-16)

In these final lines, Christina makes clear the work in which she is engaging.  She recognizes the importance of names that were stolen from Anarcha and her community, as well as the home that was likewise taken, along with the river in which her people bathed.  Yet, as she focuses on that which is lost, she issues a challenge, arguing that the children might understand and know this history “if they lookin at us right.” Despite having lost their mouths and having their voices sacrificed to a historical silence, the poem’s conclusion that the enslaved “coulda died but we don’t know how . . .” renders their narrative one of survival and not solely of trauma, silence, weakness, and pain. 

By emphasizing and celebrating the survival of a people, Christina effectively challenges the shame to which they’ve been subjected. In “The Period Poem,” she celebrates “women, made of moonlight, magic, and macabre” (115). In Anarcha Speaks, she celebrates the voice of an enslaved woman who the historical record had reduced to a catalogue of body parts that was never meant to include her tongue. In challenging that sense of shame, and the historical record that enshrined it, Christina’s poetry is not only about the reclamation of ancestral voices, but also about enabling her audience to better understand the circumstances of their own lives.

Having seen, firsthand, what can happen when a room full of willing minds are given the opportunity to grapple with Christina’s work, my sincere hope is that many others will accept the poet’s invitation to engage with ideas, narratives, and complicated truths. This poet has produced a body of work that demands to be engaged, that will not allow audiences to sit quietly when confronted with the power of her words.  The electric energy that I and my students felt in our classroom pulses through this collection, just as it does whenever Christina puts pen to paper or steps in front of a microphone. Whether admonishing a man on Twitter to look to his future daughters to understand what he “must one day come to know” or inviting “the chil’ren” to respond to the call of an ancestral figure like Anarcha in order that they “might know” the truth of their history, Christina’s work invites us to re-frame, re-name, and reclaim the narratives that have been shaped by silences and to seek understanding through the voices that boldly insist on the right to speak.

They will speak. It will be so. We would all do well to listen closely.

[i] Christina, Dominique. “The Period Poem.” They Are All Me. Swimming With Elephants, 2015.

[ii] Rucker, Philip. “Trump says Megyn Kelly had ‘blood coming out of her wherever.’ The Washington Post, 8 August 2015.

[iii]Transcript: Donald Trump’s taped comments about women.” The New York Times, 8 October 2016.

[iv] Christina, Dominique. Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems. Beacon, 2018.


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


McKinley MeltonMcKinley E. Melton, Associate Professor of English at Gettysburg College, earned his doctorate from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  With the support of an ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship, he is the 2019/20 Scholar-in-Residence at the Furious Flower Poetry Center. Dr. Melton’s work focuses on 20th and 21st Century Africana literatures, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between literary, social, cultural, and political movements toward social justice.  His current project, “Claiming All the World as Our Stage: Contemporary Black Poetry, Performance, and Resistance,” explores spoken word poetry as a distinct form within Africana literatures and examines the work of contemporary poets in relationship to Black diasporan traditions of orality and performance.

By Emily Ruth Rutter, PhD

&

The current poetic landscape is as dynamic and multifarious as ever, and Nate Marshall is a key exponent of its kinetic energy. A founding member of the Dark Noise Collective, a Cave Canem Fellow, the Director of National Programs for Young Chicago Authors and the Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival, co-editor of the much-praised The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Haymarket Books, 2015), and author of the collection Wild Hundreds (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), Marshall is an artist committed to dismantling the false separations between page and stage, individual and community, and poetry and politics. Moreover, for Marshall and his contemporaries who came of age in the spoken word scene, the performed lyric has to enrapture the audience in a compressed span of time in a genre characterized by often deeply personal expressions of identity and social critique. Both this vitality and vulnerability also characterize Wild Hundreds, the winner of the 2014 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize.

Divided into three sections, Wild Hundreds invites readers into the socioeconomically stark yet culturally vibrant realities of growing up on Chicago’s far South Side in a neighborhood colloquially referred to as the Wild Hundreds, where Marshall himself was reared. Marshall’s dedication to his grandparents for “bringing us to the Hundreds and teaching us how to make home in a new place” (v) and to “the victims of state-supported and -sanctioned black death, from Emmett Till to Damo Franklin to Rekia Boyd” (v) likewise affirms the interlaced personal-political significance of the coming-of-age poems collected here. In an especially rich passage from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator ruefully surveys the 1950s Harlem landscape: “These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (414). Marshall, writing over a half-century later about Chicago, evinces a similar socioeconomic and political terrain, whereby the “actual possibilities” for black boys and men are curtailed to getting ensnared in the criminal justice system and/or dying young.

Here, boys of African descent, like many of Marshall’s speakers, accelerate to men, their innocence snatched before they have the opportunity to fully revel in young love or dreams of socioeconomic and professional mobility. For example, riffing on both Gwendolyn Brooks’s famous lines from “We Real Cool” — “We / Jazz June. We / Die soon” (337) — and George Gershwin’s iconic tune “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, Marshall’s “Indian Summer” paints an elegiac portrait: “summertime / & dying is easier. june is jazz / or a funeral dirge” (40). Encumbered by soaring temperatures and no relief from crushing poverty and the violence that it engenders, summer on the South Side is a minefield with none of the respite that the season signifies for Americans with privilege.

In fact, Wild Hundreds commences and concludes with the same poem, “repetition & repetition &,” but with the lines inverted, indicating the cyclical pattern that the collection as a whole traces. On the one hand, Marshall represents an affirming community — “ours is a long love song” (3, 65) — and on the other one filled with the knowledge that this affection and solidarity could be threatened at any given moment by the violence within and without the Hundreds. The “long love song, / a push out into open air” must contend with “a pool of grief puddling, / a stare into the barrel” (3, 65). The “repetition” of this pattern is not only a lesson for those within “the hood,” but also for readers, whom Marshall implies need to recognize that these realities are part of our own story: “a national shame / amnesia & shame again” (3), or, put another way, “amnesia & shame again. / a national shame” (65).

At the same time, Marshall utilizes the printed page to illustrate the yearning and tenderness that do not make the voyeuristic news cycle about crime and poverty but are nonetheless powerful testaments to lives that matter. For instance, distinct iterations of the poem “Chicago high school love letters” appear in each of the collection’s three parts, capturing various forms of intimacy, as well as an endemic fear of the hostilities that pervade life on the South Side. The initial iteration marks the “first day of school” with the speaker proudly proclaiming the sacrifice of personal safety he would make to see his beloved:

i would take the bus
to you, walk through
your neighborhood
& navigate the colors. (11)      

With the speaker’s willingness to brave the gang rivalries and neighborhood turf wars that have riven the terrain, Marshall reminds readers of the high stakes of young love in this vibrant but unforgiving landscape.

Indeed, the final iteration of “Chicago high school love letter” (this time a singular, rather than a plural), Marshall marks what should be a moment of celebration with a reminder of the grim statistics teenage South Siders face:

            graduation

                        333.

            hold me
               before
                         i
       disappear. (59)

A plaintive plea (“hold me”) to the imagined recipient of the letter as much as to us as readers, Marshall includes a footnote that contextualizes this series of love letters: “the numbers in ‘Chicago high school love letters’ represent the city’s homicides during the 2007-2008 Chicago Public Schools academic year” (59).

This focus on Chicago’s children and the institutionalized skin privilege and discrimination that determines their fate recurs in other poems, such as “the last graduation” and “the first graduation.” Read in tandem, Marshall elucidates the stark differences between the African-descended eighth-grader whose education, and the hopeful promise that it entails, has come to an abrupt end. Outlined as a series of instructions, Marshall imagines the careful transition from the boy with the graduation gown — “get home & take off the gown. / fold it perfect, put it in a plastic sleeve” — to the young man “ready to throw rock” (51). His change of clothes marks this transformation from childhood dreams to the circumscribed and racialized realities of adulthood:

tuck away the fake snakeskin shoes
& the polyester pantsuit.
reach for the Sox fitted.

it is crumpled;
a dull, deep black
we learn to be. (51)

Here is the “low ceiling” again, with eighth-graders already assuming the “dull, deep black” role that hegemonic forces have scripted for those hailing from the Hundreds.       

In “the first graduation,” by contrast, Marshall imagines an eighth-grader, presumably white, who is irritated at the whole exercise of the graduation: “when my parents try to take a picture / I pitch a fit” (52). Assured that this is only one in a long string of congratulatory milestones — “there will be other / moments to capture” (52) — this young man feels no pressure to undergo the transformation from boy to man that marked the experience of his counterpart. He is not responsible for preserving the moment any more than he is for a future that unfurls brightly before him:

slide out of the dress clothes.
leave them for the help to fold. reach 
for my tattered Cubs hat, the ease
that there will be other hats to wear.
bike to the park, summer baseball
to play. there are throws to make
& every opportunity
to catch. (52)                    

The baseball teams demarcating the boundaries between these two Chicagos — North Side (the Cubs) and South Side (the White Sox)—Marshall poignantly puts the lie to American rhetoric about meritocracy and rugged individualism. In other words, these two geographic regions, so close in proximity and so distant in terms of social realities, produce two very different young men: one with boundless “opportunit[ies] / to catch” and one with “crumpled” dreams whose horizons are delimited to “throwing rock” on “the asphalt pond” (51).  

Within this landscape, Marshall implies, innocence, love, and the intimacy of family and community are all imperiled by structural forces beyond the individual’s control. To this end, “picking flowers” meditates on various floral associations with both beauty and death, suggesting how closely they are intertwined in a grief-stricken landscape: “picking dandelions will ruin your hands, / turn their smell into a bitter cologne” (60). These dandelions are as much a sign of all of those slayed and buried as they are of new beginnings. Stability, therefore, is not characterized by the reassurance that all will be well in the end, but rather by inevitable violence:  

a man carries flowers for three reasons:

        • he is in love
        • he is in mourning
        • he is a flower salesman

i’m on the express train passing stops .   
to a woman. maybe she’s home.
i have a bouquet in my mind,
laid on 1 of my arms like a shotgun.
the color is brilliant, a gang war
wrapped & cut diagonal at the stems.
i am not a flower salesman.
that is the only thing i know. (60)

Marshall conveys a sense of powerlessness that accompanies the experience of living in a society that has deemed certain groups disposable. Even one’s associations with flowers — what has long been, especially in poetry, a sign of ardent romance — is informed by the possibility that the bouquet will be set atop a grave or will mirror the vividly bloody aftermath of “a gang war.” In this landscape, nothing may be taken for granted.    

At the same time, Marshall harnesses the power of the word to map out another kind of liberating “wildness,” an imagined space in which unfettered love is still possible for those within and beyond the Hundreds. For instance, the poem “the break” self-reflexively alludes to the musical starts and stops that occasion radical innovation, resonating with what Fred Moten conceives of “as a generative break, one wherein action becomes possible, one in which it is our duty to linger in the name of ensemble and its performance” (98). Marshall leans into this liminal space and exploits it for its creative possibilities: “the break / is the place in the funk record / everybody goes crazy” (20). “The break,” like much of Wild Hundreds, is borne of strife but is not defined by it:

the break is where drums take center .   
stage. the break is the center. the break
is the party. the break is built
from thrown-out equipment,
unused grooves. the break is struggle. (20)

Social and economic constraints abound, yes, but music and poetry will continue to chafe against those restrictions, constructing new sonic and epistemological patterns out of “used grooves.”

And, if the exquisite Wild Hundreds is any indication, Nate Marshall’s lyric breaks are on the ascendant, along with his brand of socially conscious poetry. “Political Poetry Is Hot Again” declares U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith in a recent piece in the New York Times. Yet, as Ayana Mathis recently observed:

Even as African-American writing currently experiences an unprecedented mainstream appeal and critical recognition, the focus on black expression has another, uglier face: a deadly obsession with black bodies. Thus, it is possible for the Sacramento police to murder a black man holding a cellphone in his grandmother’s backyard and for [Colson] Whitehead to win the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award within a year. How are we to reconcile these truths? (138)

Marshall’s rich portraits of Chicago’s South Side remind us that a prestigious literary award, a coveted academic position, and/or a reinvigorated poetry scene will not cauterize the gaping wounds of systemic racism and abject poverty. Marshall’s Wild Hundreds, therefore, does not allow readers to forget the lives that institutions have, encouraging us instead both to bear witness and to refuse the “repetition & repetition &” of American history.         

 

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Valerie Smith. Norton, 2014, pp. 413-435.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “We Real Cool.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Valerie Smith. Norton, 2014, pp. 337.

Marshall, Nate. Wild Hundreds. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.

Mathis, Ayana. “The Academy.” New York Times Style Magazine, 2 Dec. 2018, pp. 136-141.

Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Smith, Tracy K. “Political Poetry Is Hot Again. The Poet Laurette Explores Why, and How.” The New York Times Book Review, 16 Dec. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/10/books/review/political-poetry.html 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


 
E.Rutter.Author PhotoEmily Ruth Rutter is Assistant Professor of English at Ball State University. She is the author of two books: Invisible Ball of Dreams: Literary Representations of Baseball behind the Color Line (University Press of Mississippi, 2018), and The Blues Muse: Race, Gender, and Musical Celebrity in American Poetry (University of Alabama Press, 2018). Her numerous essays have been published in journals such as African American Review, South Atlantic Review, and MELUS. She recently completed Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era (Routledge, 2020), a collection of critical essays and poetry, which she co-edited with Sequoia Maner, Tiffany Austin, and darlene anita scott. 

by Anthony Reed, PhD

&

In a moment when many African American poets imbue their poetry with deep archival research, Tyehimba Jess has developed a poetics rooted in the documents of the past without being documentary. The distinction is subtle but important: he often takes aim at the discrepancy between the archives and the conceptual apparatuses through which we generate a sense of pastness and make sense of the past. His first collection, leadbelly, takes up the story of Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter as recounted and circulated in the 1935 volume Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly: “King of the Twelve-String Guitar Players of the World,” Long-Time Convict in the Penitentiaries of Texas and Louisiana, which John and Alan Lomax edited and published in 1935. The full title points to a fundamental tension that Jess’s collection inhabits: tension between a sincere desire to present Ledbetter “in his own words” and, referring to the titles of the book’s two sections, their desire to exploit the “worldly nigger” and his “sinful songs” (Negro Folk Songs). The collection does something more complicated, and more difficult, than recover its subject’s humanity. Jess makes readers think about and through the various devices by which we evade awareness of what constrains and distorts human agency. The riotous possibility of human capacity and desire drive the work and, regarding John Lomax, Alan Lomax, and the then-burgeoning fields of ethnography and folklore studies, we finally grasp Frederick Douglass’s lesson that one must sacrifice one’s own humanity in order to dehumanize. Better stated, to humanize requires confronting the reducibility of classes of people to something akin to things — slaves and corpses. That reducibility haunts and enables prevailing humanisms.

In the interests of a capitalist system that sees in its dispossessed a new source of profit, Lomax and Lomax in that collection appear to be as mechanical and functional as their recording devices, while Leadbelly, operating under several supervision regimes, appears to be the only free man. This speaks to Jess’s dazzling skill and inventiveness with poetic form, much of which he carries over to Olio, which critics have justly termed a tour de force. Jess uses a series of formal frames or circular motifs, motifs related to circulation and to proscenia, that contribute to the “circular motion of history,” the complex reverberations of the past in the present not as echo but undertone (DOGBYTES). The most striking of these is the catalog of burned churches that surround the double crown of sonnets dispersed through the collection in the voices of individuals from the Fisk Jubilee Singers. That sense, in the words of the old spiritual, that there is “No Hiding Place” on this earth for Black people, becomes palpable not as wound but as demand. Those sonnets and that litany function as a kind of chorus, offering oblique commentary on the surrounding poems. The second frame, which similarly attests to circularity and circulation, takes the form of a series of fictionalized interviews conducted by disfigured WWI veteran Julius Monroe Trotter, who seeks information about the last days of ragtime innovator Scott Joplin. Those lend the collection narrative energy and the elegiac air of thwarted or exhausted possibilities, and, in the stories that emerge of Trotter and Joplin, the haunting sense of unfinished business.

Between the American Civil War and World War I arose and developed the New Negro movement, shaped in response to the crisis of Black freedom in a country materially and ideologically built on Black captivity, subjection, and exploitation. Euphemistically, this was the “Negro problem.” Olio takes up the birth of African American art, given that the Reconstruction amendments (13 to 15) mark the first time citizenship, however attenuated, becomes available for a majority of Black people. History’s currents are multiple, and they overlap. The period between the Civil War and WWI, “when America was gearing up to be a superpower,” is also the era of the New Woman and women’s suffrage movement, the Industrial Revolution, fierce anti-lynching campaigns led by Ida B. Wells and others, global population shifts from rural spaces and agricultural work to urban spaces and industrial labor, and the emergence of a global imperial order in which the United States plays a key role (“Music, Literature, and the Struggle of Consciousness”).

Trotter — whose historical referents are scholar James Monroe Trotter, who in 1878 published Music and Some Highly Musical People, and his son, activist William Monroe Trotter — is a plot device. The interviews allow the poem access to the interior lives of performers, especially Joplin, which would otherwise be available only through scholarship and the whisper archives of less formally trained cognoscenti of African American performance cultures. Trotter also focalizes Black participation in WWI and an important history of the Great Migration: he leaves Cairo, Illinois, after witnessing the 1909 lynching of William “Froggie” James. W. E. B. Du Bois famously enjoined Black people to join the returning soldiers to “fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land” (“Returning Soldiers”). Wounded mentally and physically by the wars at home and abroad, Trotter identifies with Scott Joplin: “a man in the mouth of turmoil, torn between the jaws of past and future” (Olio 11). Fictionalized sojourners like Trotter typically serve as stand-ins for reader, writer, or both, charting paths of inquiry, discovery, and new understanding. Olio, which uses narrative more occasionally, makes Julius Monroe Trotter a figure of witness to the specific form of turmoil we typically call history.

“History,” writes literary critic Fredric Jameson, “is what hurts” (The Political Unconscious 88). It is an absent presence in daily life, perceivable through its effects, in the unaccountable discrepancies and apparently spontaneous choices between alternatives no one can remember settling. He goes on to describe history as “what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis” (88). If history is what refuses desire, it also here engenders it; it is a name for the truths we cannot not want, and for the dissimulative tendency to misname our own desires, e.g., to discover “the face of original ragtime — perhaps in order to recall my own” (Olio 10). History is a name and explanation for our pleasure, for the clash and contradiction of our attachments, for what binds and sunders. The limits to individual and collective agency, the pressure capitalism puts on forms predicated on group belonging, are among Olio’s central themes. But its ingeniousness, apart from Jess’s dazzling technical proficiency, lies in the pressure it exerts on the narrow narrative frames whose emphasis on salvation, redemption, overcoming, and vindication obscure the animating force of the attachments that bind a people. The fact and practice of Black dispossession that subtend African American engagement with the early culture industries (which take shape as slavery ends), the prevalence of outright theft and other forms of cheating, and the layers of dissemblance underpinning relations between and within races makes “the face of original ragtime” a problematic proposition.

One of the book’s aims is to see the face behind the mask, especially in the suite of poems that address minstrel stage stars Bert Williams and George Walker. Interpolating Williams’s hit song “Nobody” (covered recently by pianist Jason Moran in 2010 and vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant in 2013), Jess writes of “Nobody | slowly erasing darky to don a human face” or “Nobody / working with a truth that smothers Jim Crow’s stench.” (I’m using a vertical slash to indicate enjambment across column break, and a forward slash to indicate enjambment from the right margin of the column to the line below.) As with the earlier leadbelly, formal attention to texts and their circulation, their tendency to entropic expanse, is an important feature of Olio’s poetics and themes. Rather than meaning breaking down, interpretive possibilities expand in the poems’ asymptotic approach to the truth in its non-epigrammatic complexity. One technique is stichomythia — the formal presentation of two voices in speculative dialogue, with two columns maintaining their own integrity as separate voices or read together in a disposition of what Ralph Ellison termed “antagonistic cooperation” to make new social texts and textures (“Little Man” 496). Paul Laurence Dunbar, paired here with Booker T. Washington in tense stichomythic duet, wrote of the mask adapted by African Americans as a “debt we pay to human guile,” and most readers tend to seek the truth of the face, and thus the person, behind the mask (Olio 134, alluding to Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask”). For Jess, the “escape into deceit’s sanctuary” also speaks to evasive strategy, the mask as equipment for living (Olio 134).

In my reading, the conversation between John William “Blind” Boone and Julius Monroe Trotter, which happens to be near the middle of the book, is at the center of the collection’s concerns. Boone identifies Trotter as a straight man, redolent of the minstrel stage, setting up this exchange (Trotter speaks first, in italics):

Mr. Boone, I rather don’t think of myself as a performer in a minstrel show.

Most don’t. But the fact is that the minstrel show is only a grin or a shuffle away from any living Negro trying to tell his own true, full story and survive in the world (88).

The catch here is “living.” Rather than the true face revealed at last, reworking minstrelsy’s signs and symbols becomes an exercise in self-making, of creating breathing room in a context defined, as the page opposite Dunbar and Washington’s “double shovel” makes startlingly clear, by the likelihood of arbitrary, state-sanctioned murder as entertainment and recreation. The orderly ledger of “black victims of lynchings per 100,000 blacks by state, 1882–1930” introduces “the reasons given for black lynchings,” which alongside familiar (and often false) accusations of rape and plotting range from “acting suspiciously” and “being obnoxious” to “resisting mob” (Olio 144). It is not difficult to see such acts playing on the stage as racial amusement. One conclusion to draw is that lynching, rather than authenticity, is minstrelsy’s true other, both logically necessary to the development of American industry and empire. What gives me pause is the orderliness of counting, what critical geographer Katherine McKittrick terms the “mathematics of the unliving” (“Mathematics Black Life” 17). A similar mathematics shapes the archives by which we could determine the true, complex realities of Black lives, even as being too difficult, too complex, was itself warrant for extra-legal murder. Poetry is not a counter-archive but a reading now with and now against its grain to produce something unverifiable, singular, and beautiful. Paraphrasing Audre Lorde, beauty is not a luxury but that which might yet pierce the reified veil of the literal and orderly.

Here I think we can better appreciate the extent to which Jess’s approach is not the historian’s. He roots his poetics not just in history or the stories of the past but, similar to NourbeSe Philip in her powerful Zong!, in the very documents and documentary logic of the past. In other words, his investment is not in the lives and circumstances that give history its meaning alone, but also in the documents that preserve, convey, and distort those lives. Occupying that discrepancy between what we know of the past and how we know it, what is knowable and what knowledge does, Jess belongs to what seems to me a new cohort of realist poets moving beyond a documentary tendency that fueled so many of the previous generation’s breakthroughs. In both of his collections, his poetry emerges through a re-reading and re-situating of the documents to the end of something other than documentary or documentation. His is a reflexive rather than a teleological view of history. As he explains, “When you are dealing with the past you are always looking at the past before that past, the present, and the future, so you’re talking about causality, and you’re talking about the idea that what happened in the past” (“Music, Literature, and the Struggle of Consciousness”). The present neither fulfills nor redeems the past, and the vastness of the past continually overflows the epistemological and institutional conventions for understanding it. There are here neither the easy comforts of pessimism (there’s no meaningful difference between its era and ours) nor vindication, romance nor tragedy. For the ultimate question is not redeeming the past or reclaiming the ancestors, but the futures yet to emerge.

Works Cited

“DOGBYTES Interview: Tyehimba Jess,” Cave Canem: A Home for Black Poetry https://cavecanempoets.org/dogbytes-interview-tyehimba-jess/

“Music, Literature, and the Struggle of Consciousness: A Conversation with Tyehimba Jess about poetry, the past, and the process of writing about history” The Interlochen Review http://www.interlochenreview.org/tyehimba-jess/

Du Bois, W. E. B. “Returning Soldiers,” The Crisis, XVIII (May, 1919), p. 13.

Ellison, Ralph. “The Little Man at Chehaw Station: The American Artist and His Audience,” The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. John F. Callahan. New York: Modern Library, 1995: 489–519.

Jess, Tyehimba. Olio. Seattle: Wave Books, 2016.

Lomax, John and Alan Lomax, eds. Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly. New York: Macmillan, 1936.

McKittrick, Katherine. “Mathematics Black Life” The Black Scholar 44.2 (Summer 2014): 16-28.


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


Reed Photo
Anthony Reed is the author of Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing, winner of the William Sanders Scarborough Prize of the Modern Language Association. His poetry and criticism have appeared in Callaloo, African American Review, and Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society. He is currently finishing a book on the recorded collaborations between poets and musicians in the Black Arts era. He earned his PhD at Cornell University and is currently a professor at Yale. 

by Destiny O. Birdsong, PhD

&

Sartre was right: hell is other people, and the last few years of my life have been plagued with a series of small but intensely burring infernos, otherwise known as racist white folks. It is important to note here that these individuals are a subset of the whole: I have had the pleasure of working alongside, creating with, and befriending white people who actively fight against racism, who deeply understand their privilege, and who work hard to create space at the table for their non-white counterparts. But goodness, there are certainly a few distant cousins I wish I’d never met: those for whom the current presidential administration has served as an aegis under which they now feel free to — for lack of a better phrase — brandish their true colors.

Of all of my experiences, one sticks out with painful clarity. In October 2016, freshly returned from a writer’s retreat in upstate New York, I was driving home through rural Northern Tennessee, having retrieved my dog from the house of a friend. During my drive, a small yellow car drove erratically in front of me for several miles, speeding up and slowing at will, and once, suddenly stopping along a dark stretch of road. Later, when the two-lane highway widened to allow for a middle lane, I tried to pass him, and he tried to sideswipe me. Silly, silly me, high from the fellowship of people of color, and oblivious to my own danger, I immediately stopped my car and hopped out, anxious about any damage it had incurred. The yellow car circled around, and its driver, a young white man, immediately began yelling. When he accused me of tailing him, I denied it, pointing out his reckless driving. When I threatened to call the police, he told me his brother worked for the police department. When I pulled out my phone and tried to record him, he sped away, but not before he uttered with disdain (not to mention the best diction he had shown all night) the words that would echo in my head for years to come: “You fucking nigger. You fucking nigger.”

That brief encounter with the man in the yellow car has had a significant impact on my life. I do not like to drive alone at night. Long distances and highway driving are all but impossible. I often feel safest at home, but recent events like the death of Botham Jean, [the young man killed in his own apartment by a white female police officer] make it clear that even that is a fallacy of logic in the land of the free. I keep my storm door locked and my door chain affixed, lest someone mistake my refuge for theirs. I have different strategies for defending myself and escaping from different rooms, should an intruder enter in the middle of the night. I have practiced how to open the door for police: how to slowly unhook the chain; how to unlock the storm door without making any sudden movements.

Needless to say, when I stumbled upon Marilyn Nelson’s “Minor Miracle,” a free verse poem that recounts an incident with a similarly irate driver who accosts two bicyclists in a non-descript Midwestern town, I read the poem over and over again — first with incredulity, then with something akin to tenderness. I remembered my own harrowing experience, all alone on a dark road with no real means of protection save my car, the supposed safety of which I had left only because I was convinced I had done something wrong. I remembered too how, on that brisk fall night, my heart had slowly begun to harden, and I became suspicious of any white person whom I did not know personally: after all, I had been caught out there before; I would be damned if it happened again. Then I read the poem once more. In its plain-spoken narrative about two Black people who are as vulnerable as they are brave, Nelson weaves seamlessly a tale of shocking cruelty and the possibility of redemption. “Minor Miracle” has been a callout for my own bitterness, albeit a nuanced one that holds everyone in its lines accountable for their own truth-telling.

Marilyn Nelson is perhaps best known for her formal poetry; works like Fortune’s Bones (2004) and A Wreath for Emmet Till (2005) are shining examples of her ability to wrangle issues of racial violence into hauntingly exquisite meter and rhyme. However, “Minor Miracle” is quite the opposite. In fact, its long and short lines meander, first across then down the page, in the same way the two cyclists might have pedaled down the back roads of the small town in which the poem opens. But one should not mistake its lack of a quickly discernable form — or formlessness — for the absence of craft. Early in the poem, the speaker makes clear that this story will unfold in two parts, and it does so through the use of repetition as well as consonance and assonance. The sibilance of words such as “cycling” (2) “small,” and “Midwestern” (3) create a bucolic atmosphere as the speaker evokes the memory of that day. Additionally, as the two “came to a 4-way / stop and stopped, chatting” (3-4), the language continues in that sonic vein, but variations on the word “stop” subtly usher the narrative into a more sinister space. When the driver appears in the poem in his “rusty old pick-up truck, ignoring the stop sign” (5) and “hurricane[s] past scant inches” from the speaker and friend (6), the sibilance is coupled with a varying consonance, disrupting the serenity of the moment. After the speaker’s partner yells “Hey, that was a 4-way stop!” (7), the sibilance is abandoned for approximate assonance in lines like “The truck driver, stringy blond hair a long fringe / under his brand-name beer cap” (8-9), and velar stops, such as “truck” “looked back” and “fucking” (8-9). By the time the driver shouts the phrase “you fucking niggers!” (9), the tranquility of the moment between the two friends is shattered, and so too is the sonic quality of the lines themselves.

Nelson employs another device between lines 10 and 11 to indicate the disruptive nature of the man’s presence on the road. Line 11 is a dropped line, but is flush left, while the preceding line, 10, is indented:

                        “You fucking niggers!”
            And sped off.

The placement of those lines on the page is both visually disruptive in correlation with the racial slur itself, but also foreshadows the surprising ways in which this narrative will double back on itself before the poem’s end. In the meantime, however, the two cyclists resume their ride, and the speaker’s attention shifts to the simple beauty of the space: the afternoon is “clear blue” (14), and the fields they pass are “almost-ripened wheat / bordered by cornflowers and Queen Anne’s lace” (15-16). Indeed, this could be any town in America’s heartland; in fact, the tawny wheat, along with the blue cornflowers and white Queen Anne’s lace are reminiscent of the American flag itself. It is into this tranquility that the sound of the man’s truck returns, its “unmuffled motor” and blaring horn once again accosting the two passers-through. When the man emerges from the cab, he too is linked with nation and power: The speaker describes him as “very much in shape” (20), with “a Marine Corp boot-camp footlockerful / of martial arts techniques” (22-23). He is one version of America who dangerously polices that space with his presence, as the two cyclists can do little more than stand their ground, closing ranks and making fists in an effort to brace themselves for whatever might come (19).

What I find most moving about this piece is what happens in the final, short stanzas. The first part of the exchange is typical: shouting, the man asks what the speaker’s male friend said back at the four-way stop, and the friend repeats his insistence that the driver disobeyed the sign. When the driver asks, “‘And what did I say?’” (27), the friend repeats that as well, and, as the speaker notes, “The afternoon froze” (29). It is a cliffhanger of sorts, but one that comes after a moment when the friend literally speaks truth to power, and recounts the incident without (at least the outward appearance of) trepidation. In the next stanza, the white driver becomes contrite, almost bashful as he places his hands in his pockets, “pushing dirt around with the pointed toe of his boot” (32). “I just want to say I’m sorry” (33) he says, before returning to his truck and driving away.

It is a surprising turn of events, so much so that I wonder if the poem’s abrupt ending (Nelson offers no details about the cyclists’ reaction to the apology nor any indication about how the rest of the day unfolded) is not specifically designed to reinforce that sense of shock. It is almost as if the world all three parties inhabited disappears in the wake of this small “miracle.” Nevertheless, what strikes me as the most profound moment — the one that makes the man’s apology possible — is the friend’s decision to engage him in dialogue, and to be honest about what transpired between them up the road. His bravery in the moment, and his insistence in telling what actually happened is a testament to courage that is equal to — if not surpassing that of — the white driver. The friend and the speaker are unabashedly vulnerable in this space; they lack the relative protection and speed of motor vehicles, which could have allowed for a faster getaway, and they are in a space seemingly without houses or even other witnesses. As Nelson notes about the poem in the back matter of the text, this incident also took place in the early 1970s (Nelson 204), only a handful of years removed from the violent pushback of the Civil Rights movement. The friend’s decision to speak is monumental, and even the language and imagery of the poem seem to attest to as much; they take a backseat to this moment in the final stanzas, allowing for the frankness and simplicity of the dialogue to take center stage. Perhaps then, it is fitting that the poem ends, not with the beauty of the space or any other memory at all, but rather with the note that the driver simply pulls away. The world as they have all known it ceases to exist, leaving only a blank slate onto which the reader must paint her own conclusions, her own newer, hopefully better worlds of kindness and possibility.

It is poems like this that remind me why I need Marilyn Nelson’s work in my life right now. As my best friend often quips, “You can’t get blood from a turnip.” The trials of coming of age and surviving as a Black woman in this country could harden anyone’s heart, and lately, mine feels fibrous and furrowed underground, desperately searching for sustenance during these trying times. In my poetry and in less-than-glowing terms, I have eulogized the white man who tried to run me off the road; so too the 911 dispatcher, who hung up in my face when I called for help because she said that my emergency did not constitute a real emergency. I reserve the right to do that; as a person who practices nonviolence in real life, my page is the one place where I have some sense of autonomy, where I can be as angry as I want to be without causing anyone or myself egregious harm. However, the page is also where I find redemption through truth-telling, and the hope for building an actual universe where I do not always feel both helpless and hopeless in the face of power, privilege, and unapologetic racism. “Minor Miracle” reminds me of those possibilities, even though I am sure that the man in the yellow car will most likely never be contrite for his actions, or apologize for them — not to me or anyone else. However, I can always hope that I encounter fewer men like him, fewer hells than the ones I must navigate every day. And I can refuse to allow my escapes therefrom to prevent me from seeing the possibilities of good in others. Perhaps that is the best “minor miracle” of them all.

References

Nelson, Marilyn. The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems. LSU Press, 1997.

Sartre, Jean. No Exit and Three Other Plays. Vintage, 1989.


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


editdestiny birdsong hunter armistead

Destiny O. Birdsong is a Louisiana-born poet, fiction
writer, and essayist who lives and writes in Nashville, TN. Her work has either appeared or is forthcoming in African American Review, Best New Poets 2018, The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature, and elsewhere. Birdsong has won the Academy of American Poets Prize, Meridian’s 2017 “Borders” Contest in Poetry, and Crab Orchard Review’s Richard Peterson Poetry Prize (2019). She has received support from Cave Canem, The Ragdale Foundation, The MacDowell Colony, the inaugural Jack Jones Literary Arts annual retreat, and the Tin House Summer Workshop (2018). Birdsong earned both her MFA and PhD from Vanderbilt University, where she currently works as a research coordinator.